When we’re kids, we don’t have the ability to do all the things we want to, though we have a certain freedom from obligation that makes them tantalizing. And when we’re adults, when we finally could, conceivably, do things like travel all over the world, sit on the couch and read a book all day, eat ice cream for dinner–we have too much obligation.
Sometimes, I wonder why it is I know that I could write a novel, or an essay, but not a short story with any depth. When I sit and read other people’s short stories, there is an effortlessness that I find unobtainable. For me, everything is either tied to what I know already, or there is not enough room in 10,000 words to create a world, and a people to populate it.
Here is what Jeanette Winterson writes in her introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit–which, if I’m really going to be honest, is probably my favorite part of the book:
“I…couldn’t bring myself to hold down any job that hinted of routine hours.”
There is something unspeakably alarming about routine hours. It is odd for me to feel this way: I like routine. I adhere to one. I can’t do anything in the morning without a bite to eat, not even the dishes. I like knowing the general rhythms of a week–Sundays that, aided by wine and a heavy meal, stretch out for ages; Mondays that feel flat in comparison (almost a buffer day: a day made to get back into the swing of things); Thursday nights when he goes to football and I curl up on the couch. But still.
She also writes this: (and I know it’s long, but I couldn’t weed much of it out without feeling I’d given something up)
“Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was written during the winter of 1983 and the spring of 1984. I was 24. At that time I was sharing two rooms and a hip bath with the actress Vicky Licorish. She had no money, I had no money, we could not afford the luxury of a separate whites wash and so were thankful of the fashion for coloured knickers which allowed those garments most closely associated with our self-esteem, not to be grey. Dinginess is death to a writer…the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible. When Keats was depressed he put on a clean shirt. When Radclyffe Hall was oppressed she ordered new sets of silk underwear from Jermyn Street. Byron, as we all know, allowed only the softest, purest and whitest next to his heroic skin, and I am a great admirer of Byron. So it seemed to me in those days of no money, no job, no prospects and a determined dinginess creeping up from the lower floors of our rooming house, that there had to be a centre, a talisman, a fetish even, that secured order where there seemed to be none; dressing for dinner every night in the jungle, or the men who polished their boots to a hard shine before wading the waters of Gallipoli. To do something large and to do it well demands such observances, personal and peculiar, laughable as they often are, because they stave off that dinginess of soul that says that everything is small and grubby and nothing is really worth the effort.”
After I read this, I thought it is probably why, before I sit down to do a task, particularly to write something, I must always clean up first. I do the dishes, I reorganize the lounge to my liking, I file papers away, I wipe the kitchen counters and hang the laundry out to dry. Because it is summer and our energy bills are low, I sometimes do do a separate white wash. Then I put my focus where it’s meant to be; but never before. Despite my Californian propensity towards nudity (bare feet, sandaled feet, short shorts, short skirts, and very little clothing at all when I’m home alone, sometimes, or in the hours just before bed) I loathe to work without proper attire. If I really want to get something done, I get dressed.
“To do something large and to do it well demands such observances…”
Surface truths: I first learned this phrase when I was reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 12th grade. Surface truths are what keep you afloat, I learned. They are things like polishing your boots before sloping through a muddy, bloody war, or–less dramatically–cleaning your kitchen before sitting down to lose yourself in a mess of words, even though you don’t have a handle on anything else, like rent or a proper job. In Conrad, one colonist at a far outposts of the jungle paid such meticulous attention to his own appearance that he looked, despite being away for years, as if he was just freshly arrived from Europe; he did it so as not to go mad, so as not to let the wilderness infringe. Another man read the same book over and over, obsessively, so that he would not forget himself. The further they journeyed down the river by steamboat, the more ludicrous such things seemed; and the more necessary they became.
In Hurst Street, we have finally found a decorator to repaint our house, to replace the mouldy linoleum in the bathroom, to repair the tiny crack in our bedroom wall that has been bothering me of late. We will not (indeed, do not) live in dinginess!