HOW IT FEELS
Tight and close, like one of those old moulded breastplates that mimic the muscles in bronze. At worst, bad for breathing.
Fine all day, nothing to say as I walk round the city, meet friends for dinner, go to bed, read. Then an hour before sleeptime I start to read at speed and I look up from the page to find I’m tightening.
I lie down and I’m gripped by terror and I try to stop it taking words because I know, I do know, really, that they’ll be the wrong words.
HOW IT STARTED
I was having a familiar argument with one of my housemates and I went and got the whiskey, and after that I found some gin. Then I was very sick. It took me a few days to trace my way back to the fact that I had just sent nine months of novel to the publisher.
‘Nah, I feel fine about it. I mean, there’s only three things they can do – accept it, reject it or ask for rewrites – and I want to rewrite anyway.’ That’s what I was telling people.
– A pile of foolscap four inches high, covered with small spiky biro marks.
– A pile of foolscap two inches high, covered with neat type inside clean margins.
– Piles of photocopies for my friends and their friends to read.
– A glossy rectangle of bound book, displayed on shelves, opening in people’s hands in libraries. With a print run of two thousand, then if four people read each copy … if four people read each copy …
WHAT I WANTED TO SAY
That’s in the book. It’s even in the pile of foolscap.
Or is it? Did I say it right?
WHAT DO I MEAN BY ‘RIGHT’?
Right for me. (Did I say what I meant to say, or did I play tricks on myself, like saying I felt fine and then drinking whiskey and gin?)
Right for them, for the audience. (Will they all like it? Can they all like it?)
Right for the times. (There are fashions in books too, hard to predict in advance.)
Right. (Saying the right thing, embodying the right values, the right ideology.)
Right. (Marxists and capitalists, feminists and the Festival of Light, academics, you, me and that person over there all sometimes say, ‘This book’s better than that book. This book got it right.’ Whatever it means, we all sometimes say it.)
DOES IT MATTER?
HOW TIME PASSED
I tried to talk about it. I tried to put it out of my mind. I worked on other jobs. I took a holiday. I went into town and bought clothes and books and a shiny black mug with pink and gold flowers. I started to train myself to eat vegetables. I planned my next novel. I planned to go away.
And the last hour of waking felt increasingly tight in the stomach – at worst, bad for breathing.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE PUBLISHERS
Fuck cool. I ring them.
‘Some other readers. Holidays. Offices being renovated. Three weeks.’
‘Oh, fine.’ (But what did you think of it? Please?)
WHAT I DID NEXT
I read George Orwell’s The Prevention of Literature: ‘There is no such thing as genuinely non-political literature’ / ‘Whenever there is an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies, as often happens – good writing stops.’
I reread Mao Tse-Tung’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art: ‘We oppose both works of art with the wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the “poster and slogan” style which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power.’
I remembered Jean Devanny writing to Miles Franklin: ‘Oh Miles, how I have wasted my life. I’m done for now, yet I feel I had it in me to do good work … I realise now that I have not exploited the small measure of ability for writing I possess one whit. I have never really got down to it and THOUGHT. Thought was reserved for politics.’
I discovered Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing: ‘In everybody’s present historical situation, there can be, I believe, no single centre of value and hence no absolute values … When we all live in the same culture, it will be time for one literature. But that is not the case now.’
Three weeks later, with a much better political understanding of my dilemma, I rang the editor again. We chatted for half an hour and laughed at each other’s jokes. Finally I forced myself to say, ‘So what are the odds? Fifty-fifty? Sixty-forty?’
The editor laughed at my joke.
Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of wanting to succeed in that world. Fear of being seen to want to succeed in that world. Fear of failing to succeed in that world.
And besides, you’ve never had a proper job. You don’t know a wide range of people. You’re middle class. You hide away. You hold in your feelings. You worry about everything. You’re uninteresting. Irrelevant.
Those were my fears.
Oh, and by the way I ought to mention
WHAT THE BOOK WAS ABOUT
Lesbians, among other things.
Some of my best friends are writers but more of them are readers, so they don’t always understand the way publishers work. Well, come to that, I couldn’t actually explain to them why the whole process took so many months, why I didn’t just demand to know the editor’s opinion and why my union couldn’t do something about it …
All the same, I wasn’t waiting for the publisher on my own. I’d passed this manuscript around, so I could use my friends’ criticisms in the final draft. It was a help, having heaps of people who wanted to know what was going on – but on the other hand, my first experience of waiting was therefore combined with my first experience of learning to handle criticism from those closest to me.
Scorpios have this exhausting tendency to tackle everything at once.
The week before I was to ring the editor again, I went away with Nance to relax. Relax! I could hardly breathe. In the car on the way back, we had an all-stops-out fight and we were still working that through when I got up one morning to find my mail outside my bedroom door, including a big parcel from the publisher.
Since they’d returned the foolscap, they’d obviously rejected the novel, so it only remained for me to read the editor’s letter and the reader’s report.
The reader admired my courage in tackling the taboo subject of lesbian love in a novel for teenagers. The reader felt, however, that the book would only reinforce young girls’ worries about being normal. The reader believed that older teenagers, who might find the book helpful, would not read books written specifically for teenagers. In conclusion, the reader regretted the book’s lack of literary merit.
So at least I’d spent my time thinking about the right issues.
LEARNING FROM MY MISTAKES
I decide to skip the Women’s Ball. I don’t want to say, ‘No, the novel was rejected’ to everyone I know, all on one night. Instead, I walk into town and spend money. In the empty house I admire my presents, arrange food on the best plates, watch Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck on TV and howl my eyes out when the tough young girl wins first prize in the rock band competition.
Okay, I can make plans for the second draft now. And I know a lot more about being a feminist/worker/writer/lesbian. I mean, the aim is to get to work on the contradictions, isn’t it?
I sleep soundly. After a week of lazing, walking and catching up, I curl myself sleepily around in Nance’s bed – and there’s that bloody metal breastplate again.
Oh, no. I’ve become a spiritual hypochondriac.
But eventually I remembered that I still had to talk to the editor.
WHAT THE EDITOR SAID
The book had been sent back, so it was mine again. I sat in a café and talked as directly as you ever do when it’s work. We relaxed and after a while the editor said, ‘It isn’t the way I’d like things to be, but a book like this does have to be twice as good as the next book.’
WHAT I DID NEXT
Started the second draft. What else?
It’s all right for me, I thought. I work as a writer; I’m a double Scorpio; I’ve got lots of confidence; heaps of friends to support me; everything feminism can tell me to date. They won’t suppress this woman’s writing.
But I imagined a woman who was undermined by the demand to be more than others had to be; who wavered in the balance between what she had to say and how she had to say it; who was torn apart by the conflicting messages; who put down her pen, muttering, ‘If they don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to tell them.’
I felt very sorry for her and then I realised who she was.
Sometimes I wish I was a lesbian carpenter. Or a heterosexual women writer. Or a male writer, heterosexual or homosexual. I wish I came from the kind of minority about which people say, ‘It’s not your everyday experience but it’s so fascinating to read about.’ Or I wish I was me in my twenties, living day by day, talking to anyone I met at the kitchen tables in my collective households, writing a story or a play every so often, planning to write something serious one day.
Of course, it’s quite probable that other people sometimes wish they were me. And in the end my book, my second draft, was published and reviewed and read. And a lesbian feminist writer in a homophobic capitalist patriarchy has to expect to spend time waiting.
It doesn’t need to be a passive activity.