The act of writing is more than testimony – it is expansion.
Sometimes I don’t recognise myself on the page – that’s necessary.
When the new book was finished – I thought of the bunya tree across the way: its tough bark, the sweetness in a new morning – and flowers.
When the new book was finished – I remembered what a writer-friend said about cages.
(How her memoir put a metal trap over her body and there was so much bleeding and public bleeding and it was weighty and severe and accumulative – and if she had known the cost…)
In my fiction, I wrote the near-future — and some of it came true. (First Nations art grew in prominence and visibility, architecture changed, our mob faced increased surveillance, the completion of a city grew more grotesque and destructive, exploitation and colonisation continued.)
In non-fiction, I splice together personal memoir with history, journalism and poetry. I expand my understanding of language and embodiment – my consciousness grows. (Friends reintroduced themselves with new names over the course of the writing of the book. Loved ones passed away. Sources on the internet mysteriously vanished.)
Too indecisive and fickle for tattoos – instead my pen finds the pond of my shoulder, the bone of my ankle. The book is called Personal Score – in P.S., left is personal, right is score.
I speak to a (different from above) friend on the phone – is this how you usually feel before the release of a book? she asks gently.
Maybe I am a bit more nervous this time, I say.
I have been in progress for more than eight years (the more time, the more pressure to get it right).
I believe our mental instability and persistent dissatisfaction in life can be attributed in part to being writers – the anxiety about a permanence that can never be perfect.
We live with our past selves in print— yet we are allowed to grow. At any chance we are given.
How do we write a self that will continue to expand and twirl across the eons of our limited time?
If I write about my current health, how might that affect my future health? If I write about being intimate, how might that affect my future intimacy? If I write about my body, how might that affect my future body?
A friend can help futureproof against self-sabotage when the writer wants to rip out every single word from every single page. (I am told by the publisher that this stage of the editing is about finding what ‘I can live with.’ And that ‘only I will know what this is’.)
Writing successfully captures feelings of a specific moment in time yet speaks to the impermanence of expression, a future where identity may shift. (I highlight this tension in the book’s form and the woven prose style).
Writing across genre to stay nimble, light in feet, glide and duck-dive under waves.
Writing future genders on billboards and on pavements, especially on streets me and my family use to get home.
Reading old blurbs feels just as jarring as any misgendering but also indicative of past lock, break form.
When the first copies of the book arrive in the mail – the writer can often feel feelings of regret, mild panic and avoidance … maybe even a sort of grief (what was mine now is ruined) against more ‘normalised’, more ‘expected’ feelings of pride, acceptance and joy.
I don’t feel any of these anxieties when I’m editing someone else’s work – getting the published book in the mail only brings feelings of joy and closure.
Part of the process of writing a book over a long stretch of time is combining work written years ago with new work, weaving them together. I found myself obsessively updating every detail of old work to try to get to the closest version of me now (but soon giving up and realising that it was okay to present stories that represented parts of yourself that were a little less present now).
Today, my music subscription service suggests my most-listened-to artists are Mitski and Aldous Harding. Next month it will be SZA and Christine and the Queens.
I’ve known writers who obsessively change versions of their books at every new edition – tweaking bits and pieces years after the book first went to print. I didn’t understand this obsession until recently, but I asked myself how much it would affect my ability to move on to the next project. How can we stay in the hallway of multiple designs?
A cousin told me of his hesitancy to publish a book – he ‘didn’t want to be pinned down’. For him, the book as a record felt more permanent than music as a record. (Maybe this also has to do with who is pressing the button. He is comfortable pressing the record button himself. He doesn’t know who would be pressing the button at the printer when the book takes flight as paper and bone.)
My writer-friend suffers – reliving her story through the prism of a cage. (And I said, ‘oh no,’ let it not be like this.)
The act of writing and the sharing of the work has been falsely equated to healing. I listen to Mahogany L Browne on a live stream, speaking at the Schomburg Center. She says writing the book is not the therapy. The book is what you bring to therapist. (I think about the object of a book being the start of a conversation, not just between writer and reader, or reader and reader, but a writer and themselves.)
When is the work done, like completely done? Who is there to tell me it is?
When I have one day free I like to go out to the bay and maybe get some fish n chips from the place on the corner and just lean in to this perspective of being a child once who came here and sat here.
When I have one day free I like to go to a Pilates class advertised for people who have injuries. No questions asked about the injury and why it hasn’t healed. On days like this, I take any opportunity to move more slowly.
Some of us want to write the story and then wipe our hands clean of it. After all, to some of us, writing is surgery.
Christine and the Queens says in an interview he doesn’t owe anyone scars and I think about how the whole book was writing against scars.
Who knows us better – our past or our future?
All of this is to be in dialogue with the people who kept me alive – firstly, My Ancestors.
I’m frying mushrooms when I get the book’s first endorsement in a text message from my publisher. The term ‘glowing endorsement’: does that equate for the shine on my face? (I have just finished my endorser’s astonishing new book. It’s been one of those days where writing feels futile. I’m taking a spare moment to make myself an indulgent lunch of gnocchi with a beetroot garlic mushroom sauce when I get this text message. To be seen by a writer whose words I have been so attached to feels too good to be true— does this make all the defeated days worth it?)
Writing is an act of patience and resolve.
A friend calls me up to tell me she will love me whenever or whatever – and does she need to book me an escape on release day? (Like maybe west coast where our other friend is.)
Small silent stories with water qualities are not encouraged in a world of ever noise.
After all, we were told to make a statement, leave a mark. And what about the marks our books leave on us?
Will we be haunted by empty libraries, returns, the sound of wind that sweeps through lonely places.
Our books will become blank sheets, and we will become fibre. Maybe all this is to touch the earth, to be in a peaceful and necessary state of decay.
In one of many midnight browses, my mouse hovers over the icon to buy a pale-yellow t-shirt from a trans-owned business that says in rainbow lettering ‘I only want to impress myself’.
Writer panic – inevitable. (Ringing up the editor the day before the book is going to print, persuading her to check one last thing. Convincing yourself during the writing process you have somehow sleepwalked yourself into multiple dilemmas. The editor writing back a few hours later saying that, unsurprisingly to her, there were no issues brought up in this final check.)
Do you even remember writing a book? Or is it now out of your system like medication.
Every project comes with a map of fears, an inventory of anxieties, multiple full-on disturbances to the nervous system.
Writing this book was about holding my nerve more than anything else.
Writing a future self with the bunya tree across the way and the seasons of meaning, rain falling. Trying to stop myself from running back to a place that’s no longer there.
Writing the self – me as a person who will continue to grow and change, and love and live, echo brightly, and flourish.
Ellen van Neerven is an award-winning writer of Mununjali and Dutch heritage. Ellen has authored two poetry collections, Comfort Food and Throat, one work of fiction, Heat and Light, and a non-fiction title Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity.