Talk of Treasure
How do you depict the process of writing? Very few of the many films about writers try to show their protagonist actually doing it. Doctor Zhivago demonstrates why: Omar Sharif sits at his desk, stares into space, writes for a bit, stares again – then we see a waste-paper basket full of scrunched-up sheets of paper.
Biographers do better, particularly when they’re intent on finding satisfactory answers to the question of how a particular person, living in a particular time and place, created what they did (as in Lyndall Gordon’s piercingly insightful biographies). But examining a writer’s process still depends heavily on what’s available in the archives, and even then must often be mainly guesswork. Even for writers themselves, working out and setting down what happens when they write is always arduous, because what it involves is so complex and hard to fathom.
In Talk of Treasure, her second book, Jane Carswell makes a gallant and engaging attempt. Starting shortly after she returned from a year teaching in China, it centres on her efforts to write an account of that experience, based on her diary, and get it accepted for publication.
The back cover (but not the text) reveals that Under the Huang Jiao Tree was published in 2010 and won an award for travel book of the year. Here, her aim is to convey what one chapter heading calls the “Secret history of an unsuccessful writer”: her experience of the long uncertain period of writing, multiple rejections and rewriting that came first.
Along the way, she writes alluringly about other facets of her life: her early booklife (closely matching mine at many points, though her parents belonged to the Book Society); her interactions with lovers, friends, family, and the Chinese students who come to share her house; occasional allusions to her paid work as a music teacher; and her repeated retreats to various forms of sanctuary.
In some cases, these retreats relate to the parallel narrative of her involvement with meditation, which she describes as “simply the practice of learning to give complete attention to one thing”, on “the borderland between mind and heart” (which could serve as a fine description of writing).
Later comes her decision to embark on the path to becoming a Benedictine oblate. She explains that this “represents, within the monastic tradition, the opportunity – for those who feel it’s for them – to live the spirit of a monastic order within the context of their everyday life in the world”, including meditating “twice a day in the Christian tradition”.
Carswell does her best to explore, as frankly as possible, why she is drawn to do this, and her subsequent struggles to make sense of what it means to her, in terms of both her life in general and her life as a writer. For me, this aspect of the book was difficult to respond to, partly because I, like her friend Leah and (I would guess) many other contemporary readers, have so little affinity with it, but it also often seems somewhat disconnected from the other parts of the book.
Seeing the whole book as an extended meditation on writing and existence helps to make sense of its fragmented flow. Carswell’s prose is, for the most part, very finely crafted indeed (perhaps a little too much so at times). As for depicting writing itself, she is acutely precise about what a frustrating business it can be. She charts the sudden swings of emotion about your own work, as well as that hurt, angry conviction of being completely misunderstood when others astutely point out your manuscript’s flaws.
The first four publishers she tries all make similar comments about the absence of essential authorial presence, or rather persona; but it takes her a long time to understand what they mean when they ask “Where are you in your story?’’ By page 165 she has started to grasp that they are “pointing to a void where something should be and isn’t: surely one day I’ll be able to see what it is.”
Nevertheless, she stubbornly sends the manuscript off another dozen times. A few pages from the end, she at last begins to make the vital shift, which has clearly been crucial for this book, too:
My fingers on the keys sleepwalk, almost for the first time, into the scarred and pocked territory of vanities, confusions, fears, illusions, guilts. The dispassionate observer has taken off somewhere. I realise she was something of a poseur, but it wasn’t really her fault; she just couldn’t see clearly.
Anne Else is a Wellington writer, blogger and editor.