I was a writer and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t writing. The answer was, I think, that I hadn’t understood how writing gathers everything into itself to make a satisfactory piece. My story, someone else’s story, a place, an idea, a dream, human anatomy, the mind acting on the world, vice versa, some or all and more yet unthought of, had to be combined in the right amounts in order to make a book, an essay, fiction, non-fiction, history, comedy, whatever, work.
from ‘A Diagnosis’, Jenny Diski
I quote scientific studies and an eighteenth century moral philosopher; I don’t offer them as intellectual accessories so much as I deploy them as tools: how can these other sources of light illuminate my own story better? This is one of the central imperatives of combining personal material with history or criticism or reportage: each thread must do some work that isn’t being done by another; that can’t be done by another…Sometimes I imagine history and science and memory are puppets, and I’m pushing them onto the stage of inquiry and asking them to have a conversation — to share their knowledge, to argue with each other. It’s a lab experiment: what explosions are uniquely possible in combination?
from ‘How to Write a Personal Essay’, Leslie Jamison
If you haven’t read Jenny Diski’s brilliant essay on her diagnosis of an inoperable cancer, then do — it’s knowing, funny, devastating, and just brilliantly written. Her description of writing ‘gathering everything into itself’ sent me straight back to Leslie Jamison & her ‘threads’ of history, science and personal material. Diski writes about how her first, her primary, emotion is embarrassment — ‘I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script’ — and I suddenly remembered my own embarrassment at being pregnant for the first time. (I notice I’ve swiftly moved this to being all about me: but isn’t that what the best personal writing invites us to do?)
I was in my late 20s, carrying a much desired child, & yet I was desperately embarrassed by all my growing stomach was shorthand for — the fact of having to give birth, the too-close confidences of strangers, projections of desire and fear from all sides, the implied closeness to all other pregnant women, the blatant advertisement of my sexuality, all that I knew I didn’t know about having and raising children.
I think part of it was cultural: we were the first of our friends to have children and we knew no-one who had a baby. Pregnancy was a foreign land, peopled only by TV characters who screamed loudly on their backs during labour, and the women in my mum’s 1970s pregnancy guide who all seemed to be poor, deluded dears suffering from phantom pregnancies. But it was also the embarrassment of being on a conveyer belt with only a few possible exits, of having set something in motion hidden in the silent depths of my body that could no longer be stopped, would no longer be hidden. A premonition of my body no longer being mine, but being communal and open to interpretation; of my body as a subject that would need medical observation, perhaps medical intervention; of a private act gone irrevocably public.
For that nine months, I avoided other pregnant people as much as I could, probably to a slightly deranged extent, emerging after T’s birth to discover that I needed to make friends and fast. And, luckily for both me and T, I did. I found that all the people who had flocked together when pregnant weren’t as intolerable as I had previously thought. That people who didn’t do NCT classes were people I particularly liked. That life on the baby circuit — playgroups with names like Monday Munchkins and Colliwobbles (we lived in an area called Colliers Wood), singing time at the library, softplay at the YMCA — was a life full of interesting and wonderful people who just happened to be my co-workers in the parenting trade.