Friday, 27 June 2014

Hearing voices

I've been having trouble with hearing voices for years now.

Don't worry, I'm not going nuts, or no more than usual.

The problem I have is a writing problem. How do you convey multiple voices in a narrative? How do you do polyphony convincingly? When you're in the school playground, on the bus, in a restaurant, in a cafe surrounded by mothers, when you're in a park, or waiting outside some activity or other, you are surrounded by conversation. People — especially women — chat about their lives constantly. While it's very difficult to define what the 'stuff of life' really is (once you've identified DNA, you realise you don't even know what consciousness is), we are indubitably brilliant at using language to continually construct, shape and reshape our reality, and that's what conversation is all about. So at least capturing conversation might help you convey 'reality'?

I've been trying to write Motherload for something like four years (I never like adding up the actual number of days that have passed, but I tell myself it's because I'm always managing motherload that I don't have the time to write Motherload). And the point I've got to is this: I can write endlessly about my own experience (somebody listen to me, please!). I've interviewed quite a large number of other people, men and women, and heard with enormous pleasure about how they manage their motherload.

But when it comes to writing about them, about what they told me, I hit this hideous wall, every time.

It's the job of the writer to make some kind of sense of all that material. It's my job to shape it, to purvey it, to curate it, to archive it, to interpret it, select and filter it. The trouble is that I absolutely loathe that dimension of what writing is.

And the reason for my loathing is that I find it desperately manipulative. I am having to choose what to leave out, and that gives me too much power — I could lie about what others have told me, bend their reality to my own account of it. And I undoubtedly will.

I don't want that power — just as I am terrified by the power I have to shape my children's reality.

I want people to step forward as they are, fully and completely.

But here I'm up against my own fantasy.

Because of course none of us is complete or coherent. We are all fragments and chaos, our tired brains constantly chewing away on the data from our senses, busily employed in sense-making, all day, every day. We stop short at certain versions of ourselves, and bundle them into neat stereotypes, because otherwise we couldn't get up in the morning. But we are remaking ourselves every single day. It's only habit that clothes us in uniformity.

So in my snippet-excerpts from other people's reality, in those interviews I conducted using the same questionnaire, all I really ever got was a snapshot at a certain moment of how someone was feeling at that moment. I carefully squirrelled it all away, but it was never the reality I wanted it to be. Those archived interviews are themselves in perpetual motion. Whenever I open one up on the computer, the words immediately start dancing, the meaning scatters, time passes once again. Some of those interviews are now four years old. The people have changed, their children and they are four years older. It is all, always in flux.

Until today I have felt hugely held back by this. As a literary critic and a tutor, I am always telling people to go back to the text, that's the one fixed thing you have. But it's an illusion. Texts are not stable creatures, fixed for all time. They just look as though they are. You only have to read a play script, and think about how a director and actor interpret it, leaving out words, adding tone and expression and movement to those lines, making 3D what had seemed safely 2D, to realise that texts are anything but static.

So why am I feeling happier about my writing problem? Well, last night, I saw Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man at Temple Studios, and it has revolutionised the way I look at my material.

Punchdrunk is now famous for immersive theatre, for abolishing the fourth wall, and taking promenade theatre into hyperreality. The intricacy, attention to detail in set, choreography, acting craft, allusiveness, and mood are unparalleled. The Drowned Man is a piece set in a four-storey disused building, in which they have created an entire film set, with its own surroundings, so that you are never really sure where film set ends and non-set begins.

After an endless haunted-house tunnel, a neon-lit lift takes you up, and a sinister, sexual MC in a ball gown encourages you to separate from your companions, pushing batches of people out at each storey. From then on you make your own way through the world you enter. You are given a slip of paper at the entrance which alludes to a possible story — an already shaky couple get into trouble when one of them has an affair, and it leads to murder (it's based on Büchner's Woyzeck).

Once inside the building, you stumble in the pitch black from set to set — a Western town square with bars and a fountain, a rundown motel, a weatherbeaten cottage, a huge 1950s car, a malevolent night forest, set about with caravans, a head-doctor's surgery, a film set that seems to stage a locker room, a cocktail bar and a domestic interior, a horseshoe-shaped saloon bar, and a desert on the top floor — it is too much to take in, and you don't know what you are witnessing, as the actors move around you, and you move around the setting, momentarily caught up in whatever story fragment they are busy with.

At all times, the soundscape is lowering and terrifying, heavy and Lynchian. At moments you might see a scene repeated. At others you try to follow an actor from place to place, never sure which part of the story you are in, certainly never chronological. At what becomes the end, the audience, all masked, is gently urged to a large room, with a conventional enough stage all along one side. All the actors, some of whom you will not even have encountered before, are assembled, encouraging the audience to sit down, so that their eyeline is below the level of the stage. The action comes to a threatening, convulsive climax — and the audience goes crazy. The ending reassures us all that we have indeed seen a play.

I emerged desperate to piece together what I had seen, unsure whether I had got it right, seen everything I should have done, gone about the performance the right way. I was envious of the actors' bodies, their intense sexuality, their beauty, I'd wanted to be part of the show, sucked in even further. I couldn't make sense of it, felt angry and competitive.

But after a night's sleep, the narrative has fallen into place. All the ellipsis and fragmentation — your brain organises it into coherence for you. The brain is always busy housekeeping. The note at the start really helped, but it's not just that, it's the way we absolutely strive for order — I think what Punchdrunk do emulates the way the eye and our senses take in information from the flux and chaos of lived experience. Punchdrunk represents reality in utterly fragmented ways, then adds in a fragmented, uncontrolled audience, and the brain uncontrollably sets about looking for patterns, organising them according to previous experience, sorting, prioritising, and finally delivers its outcome, like a cat brings in a dead mouse for its owner's pleasure.

What also amazed me (paradoxically, given all the ellipsis) was the directness of the contact between actor and audience. There was so little dialogue, and words were used like dance steps, but the actors were so expressive with such little movements of their faces, and fleeting changes conveyed the 'story' of lust and betrayal as effectively as the structure of individual scenes themselves.

The intimacy was infinitely seductive — that sense of heightened reality, where anything might happen, where you had to be on your guard, you might injure yourself, fall over something, and yet you were also being held safely in a space, looked after in some way, and allowed to look at something deeply private. The connection to the passions — the jealousy, the sexual desire, the hatred, the murderous impulses, the sorrow, the fear, horror, fury, it was so immediate — all of that blew me away.

It felt like a liberation — so much of the day, that's exactly how I experience life, all these wavering passions washing about, in chaos, no organising principle, free radicals of toxic emotion without a home — you see it in people's expressions, in how they address each other, how they move, and I am so often overwhelmed by it, that sense of our inner lives flushing through us uncontrollably.

I thought The Drowned Man was a fantastic catharsis, that for once I was allowed to observe, it was expected of me. Whereas earlier this week, I went to an award party at the RSA, and felt completely desperate at being an observer -- I could see all the ambition, competition, egotism, crisscrossing the faces of the people there, felt repelled by it, knew that I was supposed to dive in and network, but of course it was taboo to talk about what had brought us all there.

That catharsis is what theatre should be about. That's why live theatre is important. And that's how I should be writing (even if I'm rubbish at it). Forget willed coherence, just rely on association to pull in the stories that people have told me, trust that this intuition will operate an organising principle of its own. For someone who saw all this reading Proust, I'm remarkably slow to try it out myself.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Death of the Tooth Fairy

When my little girl was very much littler, she began a correspondence with the tooth fairy.

Each time a tooth came out, the tooth fairy wrote back, no matter how busy or tired she was. It was quite a chore, remembering the world I'd constructed. Often it felt like a total pain in the neck, and I moaned about it, and about the Motherload that went with it — what was I trying to prove? That I was a Perfect Mother? I was an idiot, trapped in my own sentimentality. Rage rage, write write.

One day the tooth fairy even sent a photo of her shadow.

The little girl was utterly enchanted, and the correspondence grew apace.

This week, my daughter's last baby tooth, a molar, came out. We were staying with friends, and she said in dismay, "I'll have to write to the tooth fairy and say goodbye!" I felt secretly pleased — that was one chore out of the way then. Phew!

That night she wrapped the tooth in tissue paper, and slipped it under her pillow with her note.

Later, I went into her room to retrieve note and tooth. It woke her up. My hand was under the pillow, and I thought I'd grab what I'd come for anyway, and hope she was too groggy to realise. I'd done this before, all pleased with myself for the sweet deception.

I composed a long note, telling the little girl how special she had been to me, and how I would miss her and her letters. I found myself feeling sad — my husband read the letter in silence, and stared off into middle space.

Then I tiptoed into my daughter's bedroom with it.

She was awake. She said, "Mummy, I know why you're here." My stomach clenched tight. She switched the light on. "I felt your hand under the pillow." "Did you wait for me?" "Yes, I wanted to know."

We looked at each other for long seconds. Her childhood passed into me. My knowledge passed into her.

We went to tell Daddy. All three of us sat silent on the bed. "But I know Father Christmas is real," she said. We nodded, miserable.

I took her back to bed, and found tears forming in my eyes. In a moment, an entire phase of her life had ended, irrevocably. She will never again believe in the tooth fairy. She understands that she cannot go back. She understands that her mother has made up stories. She understands that she must get older. In the same breath, her knowledge is my mortality. A phase of my life has also ended. She is both more and less separate from me. She knows more of what I know. And she has secrets from me, she thinks things that I cannot fathom. She knows now that if I can perpetrate deception on her, she can do the same to me.

I, who had longed to be let off the hook of writing those endless late night letters about Fairyland, I went back to my bedroom and cried.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Jacqueline Rose on Mothers in the LRB

Jacqueline Rose's review of a recent glut of publishing on motherhood makes, as ever, brilliant and thought-provoking reading.

But, oh dear, I struggled to read it — not remotely because what she says is somehow inaccessible or highfaluting, or jargon-filled (the usual accusations made against 'academic' writing, mostly without bothering to read it). What she says is limpid and multi-layered, suggestive, provocative, and I agree with it. I struggled because there is just no bridge today between academia and other areas of life, and it causes me pain every day.

She opens on Tim Minchin's Matilda, noting the wry critique he offers of vicious perfectionism in childrearing. Music to my ears. Try, however, actually saying anything like this about Matilda in Muswell Hill. What it means here is the summer workshop at the local performing arts centre, populated by little girls, whose parents are assuring them constantly that they are (and must remain) miracles while pushing each other out of the way to film their own offspring. Were you to connect Matilda with contemporary parenting round here, people would avoid you as a pariah — or worse, a negligent mother.

And so I walk the streets feeling alone, not rich enough to afford all the soi-disant opportunities I am told I ought to be giving my children; deeply critical of the education system, but silenced within it as a parent — why is my child doing no academic work now, when SATs were in May and they don't break up till July? — why do I have to make arrangements to cope with yet another teachers' strike, while my daughter trails into school, bored and fed up with too little stimulation? I am not patient enough to spend all my own time and energy 'developing' my children — I'd rather they developed themselves; I long for my own life and time and space; I pay lip service to the compulsory orthodoxy of sharp elbows and anxiety. I feel unable to give voice myself to what Jacqueline so beautifully articulates from her position as a commentator, for fear of social exclusion, or worse, some indefinable impact on the children.

It is impossible, currently, to escape or rid yourself of the discourse of perfectionism in the mother and the child, impossible to live the alternative without constant punishment in the form of contempt, confusion, silence, being dropped. I am in the middle of Motherload. I know, although I feel alone, that I am not — there are others who think like I do. So why are there not million-mother marches chanting, "Stop blaming, exhausting and milking us!"? Because we are afraid of the attack that would ensue.

Jacqueline outlines the compulsory positivism in contemporary notions of mothering. It's well known that pure positivism is toxic to mothers and children, whether as maternal performance ("Oh things are going so well for little Jimmy!"), or as impact on the child ("He's such a high achiever!"). Yet I fight to accept being 'good enough', as a parent and a person, and for my children. I feel like a failure.

Here is where I totally agree with Jacqueline:
Today we are witnessing what Angela McRobbie has described as a ‘neoliberal intensification of mothering’: perfectly turned out middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all the women who don’t conform to that image – because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated – feel like total failures. This has the added advantage of letting a government whose austerity policy has disproportionately targeted women and mothers completely off the hook. (Reference via Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome by Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell)
Here is what I think is Jacqueline's crucial question:
[…] what version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child? […]  if the term ‘mothers’ is a trigger for a willed self-perfection that crushes women as mothers, then how can mothers be expected to hear their children’s cry […]? 
If mothers are busy all the time justifying their right even to exist through relentless perfectionism, then what hope have they of hearing their children's real voices? So here is what most needs to change:
What do we expect when society continues to believe it has the right to trample over the mental lives of mothers?
The inner lives of mothers are crucial to the wellbeing of their own and all children. We don't need contented little babies as much as we need contented adult mothers and fathers. We need the latter to have a hope of the former.

This is Jacqueline's final wish:
As I was reading the outpourings of all these recent books on motherhood, it occurred to me that we need a version of this story for mothers, a version in which, without any need to deny everything else talked about here, the acute pleasure of being a mother would be neither a guilty secret, nor something enviously co-opted by bullies – ‘You will be happy!’ – but instead would be allowed to get on quietly with its work of making the experience of motherhood more than worth it.
I hope, more than anything, that Motherload can be that version.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, Prams in the Hall

Last night I went to Mudchute, and saw a brilliant play.

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is a play written and devised by Roisin Rae, for and with Prams in the Hall. It's been on this week at The Space, a fringe theatre on the Isle of Dogs with a fabulous bar.

Prams in the Hall is a theatre company that explicitly aims to be inclusive to people with children. They offer actors, directors and writers the option of having their children with them in the rehearsal space, and also offer flexible working hours. For audiences, they put on watch-with-baby performances, although it's crucial to stress that their work is for adults, not for children.

The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is about a busy mum who is also an artist. She has not been able to work for six years — they have three children, whom she looks after while their father goes out to work. Out of the blue, she is asked to contribute to an exhibition, and desperately wants to make two new pieces, although she only has two months. Her husband encourages her to paint, and she tries, but cannot make progress while she is at home. Eventually she goes AWOL in order to get the work done, and refuses to say when she will be coming home. The exhibition opens, and she can glimpse greater success if she can stay the course. When her husband shows up with the kids, she tells him to take them home — she wouldn't bring them to his office. When interviewed she is categorial — she doesn't see why she has to justify her drive to work as an artist, and she doesn't care what others think of her. The interviewer is clearly shocked and disapproving.

Yet underground, her other inner life, her life as a mother, is also working on her, and eventually she can stand it no longer. She comes to her tight-lipped mother-in-law's house, desperate to see her children again. Her husband is distant and cold; her littlest child cries and turns away from her. She leans forward to hold the child to her, and the play suddenly ends.

What I loved about this piece was that it fluently combined experimentalism with naturalism. The three children were played — very well — by adult actors; the son and the father were played by the same actor. This was a lovely piece of defamiliarization: something like using puppets or masks in its break with reality, but also strangely realistic in its observation (adults are just large children?). The dialogue and action, when it focused on family life, was at moments reminiscent of Outnumbered, and just as funny, but it particularly drew out the bittersweet experience of the frustrated mother-artist.

It didn't ignore the husband/father figure, and he was presented as fundamentally loving and supportive of his artist wife, but he was part of the problem, to the extent that he could not understand the process of creation. When domestic life started to fall apart, as Sophie concentrated more on her work, he immediately reverted to defining 'work' as activity with financial recompense — something one does to pay the mortgage, with 'real life' going on elsewhere, and demanded that she get a 'little job'.

For an artist, life and work are particularly difficult to separate, since life supplies the work. Creative 'work' also requires an enormous amount of time, that appears to others to be wasted, with intense, exclusive bursts of productivity at inconvenient moments. This does not mean that all artists work in this Romantic way — many writers and artists keep regular working hours, and Twyla Tharp talks of this in The Creative Habit as the need for rituals which help artists enter the creative space.

Even if an artist physically works standard hours, however, she remains preoccupied by her work even when she is not actively constructing it. Like a mother, you cannot leave art behind as you can most jobs. The great problem for artist-mothers, then, is that making — gestating — a baby is akin to the process of making art, but actually producing a baby, unlike producing a book or a canvas or a film or a sculpture, which is the end of a process, is the rudest interruption of creative identity ever devised.

It does not mean that female artists do not love their children. Precisely the opposite — they are desperate because of that love. That mother love, like ivy, actually starves them of the nourishment they need to go on being what they also need to be — artists.

The outstanding device in this play was to represent the internal artist-mother split in Sophie by means of two actresses, one blonde and English (Roisin Rae), the other dark and Columbian (Elisa Terren).

At first, this split seemed neat and clear: the artist-self was the dark, foreign daemon, constantly seeking to reclaim the mother-self. The mother-self, controlled, contained, doing all the right things, chatted to the other mums at ballet, tried to have a conversation at the playground, listened to the litanies of classes, activities, failings, successes of other people's children, while trying not to cry with boredom. Occasionally she lost it when the kids got too much — always painful, always understandable.

However as the play went on, and Sophie's inner life took over, the artist bursting forth unstoppably from her like an alien, the mother-self went into decline. Sophie as artist had a new, inescapable inner life: the inner life of the mother, who cannot unmake her children or her connection to them, which is like invisible elastic, shorter or longer, but unbreakable. In the end, that wilting inner self resurged — she could not just be an artist, Sophie needed her children in order to be whole.

The play ends on this problematic — it tackles the question of social judgement by staging its ironies, and much of the audience's laughter is rueful recognition. But I wanted a second act — not necessarily an answer to the problems the play threw up, but to see what happened next. Did Sophie go on producing? Did her husband accept that 'supporting' his wife's work actually meant sharing the housework? Did he get over his preoccupation with the mortgage? Did he start to become more creative himself? Did they learn to work together? Were the children actually affected by her time away, and in what ways? Did Sophie compromise with a part-time job — would that help her creativity at all, or simply impede it? There are clearly as many answers as families, which is why no social policy or social judgement ever fits completely. But the play made enough universal points for me to be disappointed not to have more of it. I know that the tension the play identifies, that conflict between the artist and the mother, is permanent, that it is not reconcilable. At its broadest, it is the conflict between the mother and the world. Never again will she have 'nothing to lose'. At all times she stands to lose everything. She is for ever vulnerable. Maternity has taught me to accept that both inner and inter-personal conflict exists, and cannot be eradicated, but it has not yet taught me how to live with that.

I loved The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, and the work that Prams in the Hall are doing — they refuse to make concessions to the pragmatism that sees women so often excluded from all kinds of cultural spaces once they are mothers, or confined to marginal strands of it ('Activity Half Term at the Tate!' — oh God, shoot me now). May they experiment, innovate, evolve and thrive.