How long was I asleep

Copyright The Roland Penrose Estate

“Four Women Asleep”, 1954 (Lee Miller, Leonora Carrington, Ady Fidelin and Nusch Eluard)

I’ve just finished re-reading Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman from 1969, a novel whose protagonist is tormented by a steadily advancing aversion to food. Vitamin pills remind her of eggs laid by an insect, meat of its fleshy animal origins, and all of it makes her run to the toilet to involuntarily purge herself of the offending articles. Today, when we took my nieces and nephew to McDonalds after a festive theatre visit and I unwrapped my chicken sandwich and glanced at the beige, tepid meat, I had to suddenly scurry over laps and scarves to the outside air with the blood rising in my face. “I think I’m going to be sick,” like a million fragile types before me. In case I had forgotten I was alive, there was my life, imitating someone else’s art.

A break at Christmas makes you remember all the things about you, the things you want and the things you fear, your chief emotions, familiar history, repetitive themes, coming at you like revelations and not the disguised traditions they really are. No wonder watching old films makes us feel better, as if the old-fashioned trains and old-fashioned phones and Old Fashioneds can connect us to something simple and good (the magic isn’t just in remembering things but remembering remembering them!) Running on a treadmill, away from imperfect moments. And better still if our palms are getting hot with phones begging us to share bits of ourselves, selected parts or unedited awkwardnesses, making those simple and good moments louder, more thing-like. Remember the first time you read that memories are rarely fresh but just a memory of the last time you recalled them? Every Christmas, an apt epiphany.

Internal wrangles of would-be writers are dull, self-pitying, repetitive, long as a dictionary and a million times as pointless; talking about them is more so. But here we are. Here is the subject not writing, unwriting, here is the subject doing this for months. Here she is running her fingers over the novels of Doris Lessing in the second hand book shop (holy christ look how many), then looking at pencil illustrations by Sylvia Plath drawn in what we could call a prolific spurt. Here is the subject kicking her tantrum legs in the living room, art dry as a bone, only one line and an impassable gulf away from not writing. 

It is a strange place that is both full to the brim and sealed shut. If you pricked it liquid would yap out all over the place, unformed, with some potential but with no essential shape or colour.

For ages I wanted a tattoo in the way that you passionately want things, that is heavily and then suddenly, heinously not at all, until the cycle begins again. And one day my sister said to me: you don’t have to have a tattoo, and that felt good, for a while. Until I wanted one again, heavily, all the time.

My boyfriend’s sister gave him a great book about writing and he read it and lent it to me, and in bed last night I started to read it and then had to immediately put it down, as you do when something has more truth in it than the moment it is held in. One of the things in this book is:

“I try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

In case you had forgotten that being happy, being anything, isn’t a moment but a long-term project requiring hard work and more importantly, revision, here is Christmas break to remind you. Here it is with its hard and beautiful truth, kicking you in the shins, just in case you had forgotten you were alive.


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