This term, lots of things seem to have gone off the rails (ironically, or perhaps not ironically, as I now spend so much time on literal rails, traveling back and forth to and from school). I realize that I'm not taking nearly as many photographs as has been my wont for years now, and when I do take them, I don't get them onto my computer with any kind of expediency; some of the ones that came in on this morning's sync were of Topsham in mid-November. In fact, I'd say that most days it doesn't even occur to me that I'm not loading up my photos and offering you at least one of them; nor does it occur to me, most days, that I'm not writing anything for you. And then I remember the way in which writing in this space felt like such a liberation, such a return to who I was, when I began here six years ago. And then I think, six years. That's a powerful amount of time.
Yesterday, for the first time in awhile, I thought, "I'm going to take that picture, and I don't care what it looks like that I'm taking it, and I don't much care how it turns out." It seems daft to try consciously to return to a state of creative unconcern and abandon, so I'm still trying to figure out how to let that happen: turn my head in another direction, aim the camera, and hope that I won't worry the whole time about my crooked horizons or the fact that I'm not a renowned street photographer?
I knew that during my Exeter year, I would have chances to think about my work in the world and what I believe it to be. I knew--even talked out--how some of those chances would feel at least a bit dislocating, since they would require me to talk to relative strangers about things that are essential to me but decidedly nonstandard in my professional world--and still very much in process even within my own head. And my attempts to prepare myself did not actually prepare me for answering the inevitable questions: "What are you working on?" and "What's your project?"
I give one answer and hold the real answer in reserve for now.
Last Sunday, before I headed home from London, I spent time striding from bookstore to bookstore, gathering up some things that I want to read. In one bookstore, I nearly went for a 3 for 2 deal that would have allowed me to get a book I'd seen online--but then, as I looked for the book I wanted as my free 3rd, I discovered Marion Milner's A Life of One's Own, originally published in 1934 (only five years after Woolf's A Room of One's Own, for those of you keeping score at home). Back in graduate school, during one of the many courses in psychoanalytic theory that I enrolled in but then had to drop after a couple of weeks because of time constraints and a horrifying inability to stop laughing at the weird contortions of that body of theoretical work, we were to have been assigned another of Milner's books, On Not Being Able to Paint. I bought it and kept it but never got around to reading it.
On the train back to London yesterday--for during these 10 days, I will have spent more time in London than in Topsham--I got around to reading Milner, whose Life of One's Own is the product of a seven-year experiment in documenting her life, initially in an attempt to figure out how to be happy and then in an attempt to see just how much more there was to her life and mind than she'd had any idea. To her readers, she offers a caveat at the end of her preface:
As for the method which led me to these discoveries, let no one think it is an easy way because it is concerned with moments of happiness rather than with stern duty or high moral endeavour. For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one's eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one's wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values. And finally, let no one undertake such an experience who is not prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought. (xxxviii)
Despite the rocketing and bumping about of the London-bound train, running at high speed between Castle Cary and Westbury, I was underlining furiously, finding myself at every turn of the page, seeing in a nearly 35-year-old woman writing in the 1930s things that looked very much like what I've been trying to do, though without as much method, in the 2000s. Trying to figure out what she wants from her life, Milner decides to consider directly "all the things that [she] seemed to be aiming at":
[B]eing good at one's job, pleasing people, being popular, not missing things, doing what's expected of one, not letting people down, helping people, being happy. As soon as I began to think about it I saw that whichever of these aims might be the most important to work for I would not achieve it; for my life was determined, not by any one of them, but by a planless mixture of them all. I discovered that I was drifting without rudder or compass, swept in all directions by influence from custom, tradition, fashion, swayed by standards uncritically accepted from my friends, my family, my countrymen, my ancestors. Were these reliable guides for one's life? I could not assume that they were, for everywhere around me I saw old ways of doing things breaking down and proving inadequate. (5)
I can remember, early on in these writings and even much more recently, thinking that they were definitely not enough for their own sake--that they were only really worthwhile if they became a bigger, more public, less pseudonymous, entirely more professional undertaking--something I could get credit for going into my tenure review, something that I could parlay into another departmental offering, something that would prove that I wasn't a creative failure, that I had bigger things in me than people had been able to see yet, that I'd been right when I was a teenager and wanted to be a writer. I can remember how frustrating and disappointing it felt when, instead, I kept on writing here but not producing anything offline, or under my own name, that felt rich and readable the way I wanted it to.
Milner keeps going and going, and while part of me wishes that I'd found this book before 2011, part of me is also glad to have engaged in six years of writing about myself, and from my daily experience, and from a frustration with what doesn't always feel like a rich enough daily experience, and amidst anger both at the way my life has turned out and at the fact that this objectively splendid life is something that I've ever, much less frequently, felt surges of anger about, or wished to transform into something stronger and finer. How do we find out how to live? Milner asks this, too:
Public reality, what was agreed fact about the external world, did not seem able to tell me what was important for me, or what to do in order to live in accordance with the laws of my own being. But might there not perhaps be a private reality, a reality of feeling rather than of knowing, which I could not afford to ignore?... Was there not a way by which each person could find out for himself what he was like, not by reading other people thought he ought to be, but directly, as directly as knowing the sky is blue and how an apple tastes, not needing anyone to tell him? Perhaps, then, if one could not write for other people one could write for oneself, and perhaps draw for oneself. (11)
[Note, by the way: if you've ever wondered why it matters to use gender-neutral language, not to default to "he" as the pronoun for a singular subject, consider the weirdness of Marion Milner's writing about her explorations of her own life but then going right into "each person find[ing] out for himself what he was like."]
Milner's second chapter details her beginning, at age 26, to keep a diary, and she concludes the chapter by explaining what happened to her as she kept the diary for a longer and longer time, seeing it become "the raw material from which [her] enterprise began":
I have said that the results of keeping this record were not what I had intended. I had not found that it enabled me to balance up the facts of my life and decide what to do about it; it had only enabled me to see more facts and given me the sense that the more I wrote the more I should see. I think I must have had a dim knowledge that the act of seeing was more important to me than what I saw, since I never read through what I had written and never opened my note-book again for a year after. And when I did come to look at it I did not know what to do with it, because for me there were two separate things: on the one hand my own day-to-day experience, which was just a vague chaos, and on the other, theories about life, philosophy. I did not know how to link the two together. (32)
"The more I had tried to find the facts," she writes as she moves into narrating the next year of her project, "the more I had become convinced that my own mind was something quite unknown to me. I decided therefore that my most urgent need was to become more familiar with my habits" (34). Again a cross and circle in the margin beside that line: I feel as though, not for the first time in my life, I have almost literally fallen onto a kind of kindred spirit, a hitherto unknown creative progenitor, and may be finding the reassurance I've needed to know that it's all right for whatever the Cabinet is to keep being whatever it is--not a quick step toward something conclusive, another project with a payoff, but one of the places in my life where slow patient workings are still turning their wheels may they always be turning their wheels may this long slow process of becoming more familiar with my own habits not stop may I not forget that the more I write the more I will see.