Today, a good friend of mine, Elisabeth Hanscombe, steps into the attic to write about what writing means to her and the difficulties of squeezing it in around a heavy working schedule. I met Elisabeth through blogging, in particular through Freefall and writing about our difficult childhoods.
Elisabeth is a psychologist and writer who lives and works in Melbourne and has published a number of short stories, personal essays and book chapters in the areas of memory, psychoanalysis, shame, trauma and memoir.
She blogs at https://www.sixthinline.com where she explores the fine line between fact and fiction, and the ways in which memory plays havoc with past experience to allow new ideas to emerge.
My writing life
When I was a child I fancied myself as a poet. On weekends, I crawled over the back fence onto the Farm Road housing estate in the newly formed suburb of Cheltenham and with pencil and note pad in hand I strolled across the disused market gardens past abandoned chook sheds in search of inspiration.
My writing sensibility had been informed by the poets and prose I found in the Education Department’s Victorian Readers where I came across the hedgerows of the British countryside, the coppices and lanes of green and shaded gardens. I looked out across the stretches of cleared land in front of me where the builder AV Jennings had laid out a lattice of concrete roads in readiness for the houses that were soon to spring up in their thousands and tried to imagine a different landscape.
As a young poet, I went in search of nature, which I found near the golf links that straddled Farm Road where a long line of Lombardy poplars caught my eye. I looked up to the sky at the tip of these trees and imagined myself another Christina Rossetti or Wordsworth, a person of fine sensibility for whom words arose like magical notes of music.
Only my words were clumsy and despite the admiration of some of my older siblings, The Age newspaper’s Children’s Corner never published a single one of my contributions. I began to wonder whether I would indeed become the poet of my dreams.
Life intervened then and for the next twenty years I completed my education and focussed my energies on a career in social work and psychology such that my writing took a back step. Then, in 1991 the psychoanalysts dismissed me from their training program. At the age of 39 I felt my life had come to an end.
‘At the age of 39 I felt my life had come to an end.’
I began to write into the shame of this experience as a way of helping me to make sense of why I had been dismissed, to write in such a way as to make sense of this crazy fracturing of my life.
To that extent I have always tackled the autobiographical. And although I enrolled in a novel writing class in the early 1990s on the pretext of writing a novel – this in the days when memoir writing held little of the popularity of today – I wrote, as many before me have done, in third person, my own story as someone else’s life and I began to practise the craft of writing.
Slowly I came to realise, it’s not inspiration per se that drives writing, it’s practise, persistence and a desire to get words down onto the page out of the compost of your life in such a way as to create whole new worlds that can inform and entrance.
My writing life has always straddled the demands of two lives, my life as a psychologist, and my life as a writer. The two worlds have not always coexisted comfortably but instead of railing against the pressures as I might once have done, I’ve tried to find ways of writing into them.
The tension between the physical demands, hours spent each day at therapy work delving into and helping others with their lives – not as stories but as real life events and experiences – contrasts with my own preoccupations with my life on the page.
There are days when I long to be in a position to write full-time, days when I imagine I could get so much more done. I could dig down deeper. I could float away into fictional worlds if I had more time and fewer distractions.
Then, there are other days when I tell myself this is how it is. I write when I can. I write on weekends and in the spaces between. I arrange to go away on writing intensives at places like Varuna in the Blue Mountains and Freefall writing weeks elsewhere in country Australia. I seek out mentors who can read my work and give me feedback. I write and reshape, redraft and go on and on, time and again, to create the pieces of my writing until they are good enough to send out to find homes. And then I write some more. Always circling the wound, as Siri Hustvedt writes. ‘The writing self is multiple and it circles the wound’. I circle the wounds of my childhood to make sense of my life and that of others in today’s world.
There is an urgency to my writing. I struggle to feel it’s okay to write; there are some who consider therapists should remain largely invisible to the people with whom they work and so when I write autobiographically it goes against the professional grain. At the same time the ghosts of my several siblings rebuke me for daring to take a position on experiences we once shared.
‘Beware of Lissie,’ one of my brothers told my sister recently. ‘She gets things wrong. She makes things up.’
At the time, I heard it as a compliment. But I also I heard it as a threat. I heard it as a call to silence. I continue to write regardless, determined, as I am to keep on with this strange pockmarked thing I call my writing life.
And when I am not writing between times, when I am not preoccupied with the concerns of those with whom I work or with my immediate family, my children, my husband, then I think of my writing.
Writers not only write, they think about writing, they read other people’s writing and in between even in their dreams they imagine words on the page, as I have done for years now.
MJ Hyland, who once mentored me many years ago when she was still Maria Hyland and had not yet published her books, told me she only wrote every Sunday from late morning into evening. For the rest of her time she worked as a lawyer.
I was both impressed by this and relieved. It gave me permission to struggle on in my piece-meal life as a writer caught between the demands of full time work, a family and wanting at the same time to lead a committed writer’s life. It’s possible to do both.
If you’d like to be a part of this ‘Writers in the Attic’ series, please drop me a line via the Contact page. The invitation is open to everyone, published or unI’d love to hear your story—about what writing means to you, your inspirations and goals, the reasons you write, and the obstacles and battles you face. If you’d prefer a Q&A, I can send some questions.
I’m drawn towards personal writing that digs beyond the superficial, but only write what you are comfortable sharing. Pseudonyms are welcome, too. Most posts are 600-1200 words in length, but that’s not set in stone. I also need a photo, a concise bio, and a link to your website and publications.
If I publish your essay, I like to send a small thank you gift of a $20 book voucher from Booktopia (or Amazon if you live overseas).