Getting Carried Away
Carolyn McCurdie, Dunedin, November 2017.
Sometime last century, I saw an advertisement for the Bank of New Zealand short story competition. I think first prize was $2000, but anyway, a vast sum of money. I was out of work and short of cash. So I wrote a story and sent it in. I can’t remember now what I wrote about, but I do know that I was totally clueless.
I had no idea that writing involves a process beyond a first draft. In fact, ‘draft’ was a bit of a foreign concept, as was ‘editing’. I’d never tried any creative activity before, and so the sheer joy of it was a revelation to me. So I wrote another story and sent it off to some long-suffering editor. I imagined my story arriving; I imagined the excited whispers among the staff, and I checked the mail regularly for the ecstatic letter of acceptance. (You would have thought that my first story’s failure to win even a mention in the competition might have forewarned me.) Eventually, there was the standard letter of rejection, together with my story in the self-addressed envelope. And I re-read the story.
Sudden sobriety is hard. Sudden insight into your own folly is harder. But why were my expectations so ridiculous? I’m sure this happens to other novice writers. Years later, I was helping out, reading submissions for a short story magazine, and one of the writers I’d rejected sent back a multi-page letter of woundedness, calling the cretin who had turned her story down, a ‘philistine’, among other things. I so sympathised with that response.
Of course, her story was one of staggering brilliance. That was what the process of writing it had felt like. Of course, anyone of intelligence and sensitivity who read it would be speechless with awe. Although, presumably, she had not re-read her story, or she would never have sent the letter. But the experience itself can be so magical, so intoxicating, that the assumption that the product of this experience must also be a thing of wonder, is understandable, especially when the experience is new. I have to say that I struggle now to remember just how astonishing I found it. I guess I now take the strangeness of it a bit more for granted.
So, jaded I may be, and well aware that what I set out on the page or screen is not a thing of wonder, and yet, the creative process itself is indeed astonishing, the making of something from nothing a profound mystery. Like another mystery: dreaming. What and why is a dream? When I write, I feel as if I’m dreaming on to the keyboard, and I wonder whether the same sections of the brain are involved. The processes are so similar. From all that the mind has gathered and filed over a lifetime, it selects events, detail, and characters, perhaps from a ten-year-old’s birthday, a pet cat in a student flat, a song, last night’s tv game show, and creates some new, semi-coherent dream, or story. It happens as if the rational, everyday mind, is no more than a bystander. The dreamer/writer struggles to place some of the components. ‘I don’t know where that came from,’ we say.
Everyone dreams, we are told, even those who don’t remember their dreams. Dreaming is necessary to process experience, for healthy growth, for sanity. I think all creative work is related to, even directly part of this. The art work of all of our cultures is our collective dreaming. Especially story making. From the beginning, human beings have created and shared stories, and unlike dreaming, story-making is for sharing. We process and explore experience, who and what we are, through story. It’s part of our collective sanity.
I may have recovered from being stupidly drunk from the creative process. But it still amazes me. And even more, I’m amazed to find myself even a tiny part of this grand work that needs us all, not only artists, writers, but also those who read the stories, whose imaginations are touched by the art works and engaged. I think it’s part of the building of humanity. We create ourselves; we all do it together. And intoxication is still what I feel about that.