Perhaps it is the smell of a recent by-election in the air, or the fact that I am mired in an inner-city left-wing caffe-latte sipping ghetto, but I really had to write about la dolce vita and Italy today. I fully understand that with all the turmoil and hardship abroad in the world right now, not being in Italy is really not something to complain about. Nevertheless, this blog has to touch on the good things in life from time to time, and those pastries really were tasty. Perhaps this weekend I should sit in the sun at Brunetti in City Square, and just pretend: yes, that will do. In the meantime, forgive the indulgence.
Today I sit having my lunch in a café in Carlton, Victoria, a suburb of Melbourne notable for its distinctive Italian influences. The café where I am writing is neither Italian nor notable, offering instead the kind of Australian ‘take away‘ food you might find in many suburbs of our cities. My lunch consisted of a salty and thoroughly forgettable chicken stir fry, served with sticky steamed rice and chased down by a passable Vittoria coffee.
I am dwelling on the details because today I am in a frame of mind to notice such things, and I find that I have Italy on my mind. Perhaps my reminiscence has been partly triggered by today’s weather - an alternately sunny/overcast day with big clouds battling for dominance over deep patches of blue sky - putting me in mind of an Italian sky?
Whatever the reason, I find my mind wandering back to a morning spent with friends on the Isle of Capri. In particular I remember the blue tablecloth of such a vibrant hue that it seemed to glow, the backdrop of yet another shared round of canoli and cornetta cioccolato accompanied by excellent coffee. I remember this moment primarily because I took the photograph shown above; I took the photograph at the time because the colours were so vivid, we all thought the pastries looked so good, and all seemed well in the world.
It is such a simple thing, a pastry in a café, but it is just the kind of simple pleasure that Italy does so well. Of course, what I really wanted to write about was the depths of my desire to be in Italy, a desire that is present whenever I find myself in a café, or whiling away a spare moment in idleness. I have an ache for Italy, a deep sense of the rightness of the place and a conviction of the inevitability of my returning there, despite any economic and social disadvantages it may be suffering.
I wish I were there right now.
I write because I love the angle of the wall as it meets the ceiling, just over there near the head of that black timber window. I write because I love the cold, flat grey light of winter, the stillness of those ugly trees in the chilly midday air, and the way Melbourne’s footpaths change from grey to black under a light fall of rain. I write because I love a messy house, because I hate housework, because I hate going to the supermarket on a Saturday and because I want to exist long after I have turned to dust. I write to remember that part of my day is worthwhile, even while some gets wasted; I write to remember to take it easy, to take it long and low and to draw out the strokes of my lazy afternoons.
I write despite having no ideas about what to write. Having an idea for a story is like having an idea for a poem: it doesn't lead anywhere in itself. It is merely the conscious mind attempting to take control and set the agenda. It is not productive. I seem to get this with poetry more than prose: I begin a poem because I find the fragment of a poem in my mouth and on my tongue, a stray association of words that has sprouted like a seed from my subconscious. I should try this more with prose.
Story ideas are a red herring. They miss the point. They are ‘about’ and not ‘of’. They are desperate attempts to herd fish when the real game is a shotgun blast in a salad bowl. If an idea has value it will emerge from the seeds of free writing. If it does not it will not: something else will emerge instead. Something strange that will take root and grow out of the fertile soil of steady production. And production is everything: to write, and to write and to write.
So I write through interruptions, through rain storms, and through the beats and chimes of this drawn out Friday afternoon. I write through application and concentration. I write through the eye of a needle, threading each sentence through the eye just one word thick, one word at a time. Sometimes I write through a fine, white gauze I call Mental Muslin.
I write imperfectly and impatiently. I write enough for now, and then some more for later. I write up and I write down, and I am working on writing sideways as well, but I am not there yet.
I am therefore I write, but the am came first.
I have successfully banished my writer's block, and I am feeling positively incendiary. I feel like I have been circling around a method of writing practice, slowly zeroing in on the sweet spot. This process is inspired at least in part by the delightfully neurotic and generous frankness of Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird'; and to a lesser extent by Natalie Goldberg in 'Writing Down the Bones', where she takes a slightly more Zen approach, with less swearing.
The emphasis in Goldberg is on 'first thoughts', and in writing in an unfettered manner, with your whole body attuned to the pen and the paper. I can relate to this mostly through suffering (often enough) from the opposite condition - writing in a constrained and straight-jacketed way, using my conscious mind far too much, which means working against the subconscious or unconscious. Thinking rather than doing.
While Goldberg speaks of the hand and the pen, I have expanded her observations to include the hand and the keyboard. I can touch type at about 80-90 words per minute, and to do so feels like an unconscious and fluid process, so I mix up hand writing (longhand) with typing and the occasional speaking into a recording device. At the moment I am buzzing, and I feel like doing all three at once.
You may have noticed that I have also been working on the peripheral parts of this website, streamlining the story I tell about myself to focus more intently on the writing. The writing's the thing: everything else is secondary. All in all, despite being buried here in mid-winter in Melbourne, it feels like a time of renewal and change: a Springtime of the soul. Let's see if I can sustain this fertile and provocative frame of mind.