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White-knuckling it

Helen Lehndorf

 

What I lost: Comfort
It started early, the discomfort. My first memories are of a profound sense of otherness. A precocious detachment. A creepy precognisant feeling of having been through the world before, a premature awareness of the machinations and performances of the adult world. I stumbled through my childhood, awkward and separate. I felt the full emotional spectrum of every human gathering with my senses and my body before my intellect knew how to process it. I would lose/hide myself in books, in words. I never really felt at home anywhere.
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As I grew, I learned how to use ‘otherness’ as a conduit for art. Knowing how overrated ease is, I’ve made a home in the terrain of nuance, ambivalence, complexity, cognitive dissonance, negative capability – often able to see things from all directions at once, but forcing myself to pick a side or two. I push to find conclusions within the unknowable and the unending, or, at least, to ask better questions.
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Not being comfortable in the world means I’ve persisted with writing despite myself, despite all my worst habits and tendencies. I have the self-awareness to see my own weak spots, repeated tropes and am learning when to allow them and when to fight them. I try not to settle for what I can do easily, always try to take it further, being prepared to write badly in the hope of improving or discovering something new.
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I treat writing like any other relationship in my life, I romance it. Me and my writing work through our difficulties together. I feed it high-nutrition fodder, good/challenging/interesting work by artists I admire. I stay curious, I always ask one more question than might be entirely appropriate.
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I fight for the time and space to write between family, job, volunteer work, housework. I snatch empty half hours between obligations, take Sunday afternoons from my family and get up at 3 a.m. to chase a scrap of poem. I never wholly enjoy leisure time because part of me always feels like I should be writing instead.
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Sometimes at readings, people will tell me I am ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ to write what I write and I never know quite how to respond. I murmur ‘thank you’ but wonder who this subset of humanity is who can dodge the ‘stuff’ of life and not have it follow them, haunt them, demanding to be examined, transformed? That is not my reality and therefore I have no sense of needing ‘courage’ to pursue it, rather that the weight of not examining it would slowly strangle and undo me. I would rather be uncomfortable in this way, than dulled or diluted.
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What I found: The Hustle
I learned how to make a writing life happen for myself. I never waited for other people to invite me in or make room. Early on, I shrugged off the need for approval, permission or ticker-tape parades. I cultivated persistence and tenacity, worked at building them up like a squirrel stockpiles acorns for winter. Now (twenty years in) I have an earned self-certainty, which gives me the strength to survive rejection, being misunderstood, or worse, ignored. I turn rejection into fuel.
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I see the layers, the game – I don’t let myself get sucked in. I see the webs of patriarchy, capitalism, class and all the ways we are kept from our own natures and from Nature. I don’t allow myself to be defined by existing structures. Where I can, I create new opportunities for myself and others, claiming the metaphorical speaker’s corner, soapbox, megaphone. I am tuned into the constant white noise at the back of my brain which urges me on. I remind myself I am a body as well as a brain, a member of my community before I am an artist. I always try to contribute, to give back, I see creativity as reciprocity, the artist’s responsibility to give voice to those they live among.
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I try to bring my whole self to readings, not reading like a brain on a toothpick, not chucking my words away. I experience poetry with my body – heart, gut, sinew. I try to be aware of my breath, my feet, aware of the silence between words. I’m respectful of the gestalt of reader-plus-audience, the grace of their attention. I don’t assume I deserve their attention, or that I don’t have to work at offering them something.
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My writing life is a patchwork life, a piecemeal life, a bricolage life. There’s a cunningness demanded, a resilience. I attempt to help create the culture I want to live in, make the work I’d like to see more of, not allowing myself to be susceptible to trends, fashions or the cheap shot. I try to have just enough cynicism to keep myself safe, plus enough optimism to enjoy life, to stay alive. I’m in it for the relief of expression, the thrill of playing with words, and the dialogue.
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Recently, my friend Jo was talking about a difficult period of her life and said to me ‘Mate, I was white-knuckling it the whole time.’ This is the writer’s life, always white-knuckling it: a permanent tightness in the chest, a loss of edges, of security, your hands clinging tightly to the bars lest you fly off.

 

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