AN ESSAY ON WRITING FICTION - this is an extract from Dear Writer Revisited (2013)
The Company of Laughing Singing Invisibles
The following essay was written in 1997, and in 1998 I put it up my website www.carmelbird.com. So the essay is still a long way behind the writer’s world of 2013. But as with the letters to Writer, the essay reveals aspects of writing fiction that might hold good for all time. It is a personal essay, a memoir of a kind.
I was writing the letters at the same time as I was writing a novel The Bluebird Café ,and the character of Virginia turned up in the novel. I found that she had been a teenage anorexic in the fifties, among other things. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writing plays and novels, visiting Australia from time to time. I lead a quiet life in a Melbourne suburb, tapping away at my computer in front of a window that looks out onto a wall of bougainvillea which, as I write this, is ablaze with a colour I know only as American Beauty. The curtains – printed with images of the Unicorn Tapestries – are always drawn back to let in the light and the sight of the leaves and flowers outside.)
Why I write fiction is a question that never really bothers me, but it is one that is so often asked, in one way or another, of writers, that I propose to explore the subject. It is one of the questions that lurks beneath the surface of the letters to Writer, but it is not one that Virginia or Writer ever ask each other. Lots of little children write down stories, but most people stop doing this when they grow up. Could it be that fiction writers are not quite grown up? I suppose it could. I do happen to believe that writing is helped if the writer can look at life and so forth with some of the freshness of a child’s vision. That makes sense. Writers do have to notice things all the time.
I can trace my own attitude to fiction-writing back into my early life, and this is partly what I am going to look at in this essay. I recall that when I was a teenager I used to write novels in notebooks, sometimes sitting in place called the Scotch Cemetery. It was a forlorn and creepy place where there were tombs cut into the hillside and sealed off with rusty iron doors. When I was seventeen I asked my mother to buy me a typewriter and she did, and I started to teach myself to type from a Pitman’s manual. This was during the holidays from university – I would work in an ice-cream factory during the day, then at a cafe at night, and then I would do my typing practice. But it is one thing to say I knew I had to learn to type; it is another to know why I went to the trouble. I was driven by the belief that I would write fiction. And I wrote and I typed – until I had a story accepted (it was, as it happened, the first story I ever submitted for publication) by the Australian Women's Weekly in 1963. I knew nothing about small literary magazines then, although they did exist.
I was writing novels and destroying them – they were no good at all – I didn't need to be told. I was writing stories, steadily, quietly, and teaching in a high school. Then in the mid seventies – I had pieces of short fiction published in the Melbourne Herald Sun. Some of them won prizes. Progress was still slow. I continue to write fiction. But why?
Once when I was five, my mother and my aunt and I came home from an afternoon at the cinema and we saw at once that the tapestry cushion had gone from the chair on the front veranda.
Long afterwards I discovered the cushion in the cubbyhouse belonging to Mrs Hopper's daughter.
We were not supposed to have anything to do with Mrs Hopper because she was known to be ‘not all there’. She lived across the street, and sometimes you would see her at the window – a small, thin woman with wild black hair. Her children were in boarding school; her husband was a wealthy pastrycook, the owner of a chain of cake shops. The Hoppers’ house resembled a big white cake. It was in fact a Tasmanian version of Spanish Mission. I suppose Mrs Hopper had nothing much to do.
I have sometimes thought about Mrs Hopper, and I have realised that she was probably suffering from depression. I have a memory of one exciting incident – Mr Hopper was attacked in the driveway of their house by a rival pastrycook with a knife. There were police and cars in the street that day, and we didn’t often get that. Mr Hopper wasn't killed, but he became the subject of more local interest and speculation than he had been before. He was a fat man in a navy suit.
This is not a straightforward story about my childhood, and it isn't a story about Mrs Hopper – it’s a reflection on the possible origins of the images that have so lodged in my imagination as to require treatment in fiction, and on the possible reasons for my attitude to events both now and then. It is also a reflection on depression, on what it is that keeps people such as Mrs Hopper behind their curtains.
When I was in my twenties I read The Feminine Mystique . I realised that as a child I had been living in the midst of ‘Housewife Syndrome’ and that I had been silently documenting it for a long time. I remembered (well, I had never forgotten) that a woman who lived two houses away from Mrs Hopper drank a bottle of disinfectant and died. I wrote a story, ‘Pomona Avenue’, inspired by the dead woman who was the most dramatic and tragic of all the depressed women I had known in my childhood in rural Tasmania.
The awareness I had of the dark trouble that infected the lives of the women around me when I was very young has never left me, and it has sometimes been at the back of my mind as I wrote. Men didn’t suffer from this thing, as far as I could tell. This is not to say that men don’t get depressed; but the men I knew when I was a child seemed to have more freedom to express themselves than the women had. They went out to work in the daytime during the week, and at night they read and wrote and worked in their sheds and workshops. On weekends they drove the car for family outings, or they went to the pub, the races, the football or the cricket, or they worked in the garden. They went to clubs and meetings. They were forever Meeting People and Doing Things. If it sounds pretty dull, I suppose it was. They did sometimes have recourse to doing such things as knifing each other in the driveway in broad daylight.
Behind the walls that shone white like icing, beyond the pathway that was lined with standard roses blooming pink and apricot in summer, Mrs Hopper existed alone with her depression. Her husband provided her with her little Spanish Mission palace, but it seemed he could not dissolve her sadness, supposing he wanted to. I have no idea. The house was to her a kind of prison; the lace and satin curtains were the window bars. She wandered through the rooms, doing nothing, pulling back the curtains to stare blankly into the street. Hoping to catch onto some strand of life as it blew past, hoping to see something shining or twirling, hoping to interrupt the dread grey flow of things, to intercept a message from the clouds, a code beamed in from a reality far, far away.
I never saw Mrs Hopper go out, but then, to tell the truth, I had more interesting things to think about. I paid very little attention to Mrs Hopper, not all there, across the street, behind her window. But I learned, one day, that she was watching us.
My mother and aunt, living next-door to each other, had each other for company. I realise now how lucky they were. Supposing Mrs Hopper’s sister had lived next-door to her, would that have helped? Maybe? If my mother and aunt had elements of Mrs Hopper's depression in their natures, they somehow kept the depression at bay, and never gave in the way Mrs Hopper did. They got their housework done and then they got out and about, played tennis and badminton. They cooked and cleaned and knitted and sewed and gardened. They read books and magazines. They sang. They laughed. They had card days and afternoon teas. Why wasn't Mrs Hopper ever included? Perhaps she was invited but never came. Shopping was a big thing; so was going to the cinema. Because I was the youngest child, when all the others had gone to school, I accompanied my mother and my aunt when they went to the pictures. I was like a kind of extra handbag they dragged along, and they made no concession to my taste in movies. I got lollies and ice-creams and was taken to the lavatory, but otherwise I was pretty nonexistent. I saw a lot of war films, the sky busy with aircraft and bombs, the sailors and soldiers and airmen on the screen large and handsome and black and white.
I was always silently impatient for the men to get whatever it was they had to do over and done with so that the pretty heroine could appear and there could be sweeter music and kissing and staring into each other's eyes. I liked the sex. It was tame enough, but I was thrilled by it, couldn't wait for the plot to get around to it. There was never enough. Sometimes there were films with no womenat all, and no sex I could detect, and I was very disappointed. I didn’t know anything about sex, you understand, but I knew a frisson when I felt one.
In some ways I was conscious that what kept Mrs Hopper prisoner in her house, prisoner in her own skin, was fear and a poor sex life. I realise I can enunciate that now with hindsight, but I believe that as a child I recognised it at some level for what it was.
On our front veranda, among the wicker furniture, there was a leather armchair, set well back, protected from the weather. In the armchair was a lovely fat cushion, one side of which was the tapestry picture of a woman in a frilly dress on a swing. The picture was a rendering of ‘The Swing’ by Fragonard. Kitsch was the order of the day. We used to sit in the armchair and read or play or tell stories; and it was nice to stand on the cushion because it was soft and squashy underfoot. And I would take the cushion in my arms and sit on the bare leather chair, and I would trace the elements of the picture with my finger. The long ropes of the swing emerge from the trees as if from clouds. It’s like something in a ballet – the elaborate, romantic dress of the woman is like a ballgown as it puffs out in the air. She tilts her head, smiling in a tantalising way, and her bonnet flips up at an angle. You can see the top of one of her stockings as, with the other foot, she kicks off her shoe. Lying on the ground, among the flowers beneath her is a man in silk and satin and lace, waving his hat at the woman, and gazing up her dress as it flies open. Strangely enough, in the shadows behind the swing, there is another man who is guiding the swing with another set of ropes. Stone cherubs on a particularly ugly dolphin look up at the woman, and a thoughtful naked person, man or woman, looks down on her from a pedestal.
So there I was, at the age of five, sitting on the veranda, fondling the shoe, running my finger up and down the ropes, feeling the treetops with the flat of my hand, always coming back to the man in the shadows who was pulling the strings, and always staring into the nasty open mouth of the dolphin.
Years later when I saw the original of ‘The Swing’ in the Wallace Collection, the picture was much brighter and lighter than the old tapestry cushion, but I couldn't get rid of my childhood feeling that the woman was in danger, that the moment was somehow fatal, that the naked foot revealed by the flying shoe was vulnerable, that the man with the hat was tricking the woman on the swing, that the man in the shadows was powerful and evil, that the cherubs were fearful for the woman, that the dolphin was malign. I used to stare and stare at that picture on the cushion. One man controlling a woman on a swing so that another man can see up her dress.
The man on the ground is a portrait of the Baron de Saint-Julien who commissioned the painting; the woman is a portrait of his mistress (nameless?); the man in the shadows is a portrait of an unnamed bishop. That's all I know about it, but I tell you, when I was little I thought it was pretty funny stuff.
Once when I was a child at the beach I wanted to have a go on the metal slide. The only people around were me and two boys I didn't know. The boys took no notice of me until I reached the top of the ladder ready to go down. Then one boy sprang to the top of the ladder and the other one stood at the bottom of the slide. As soon as I set off, the one at the top dropped a beer bottle onto the slide, and the one at the bottom threw a stone at it and so I was sliding with bare legs on broken glass. They ran away.
There is a connection there with what I feel about ‘The Swing’. Dark times in rural Tasmania.
The cushion was one of the many ways into fantasy. But not far away, across the street and down the hill there were women seeking fantasy, women trapped, to one degree or another, in boredom, in frustration, losing sight of their realities, dropping out of view behind the curtains, below the level of the black waters of depression, into the jaws of the lurking dolphin. They would kill themselves, on rare occasions, out of the blue, with poison, or by jumping off the King’s Bridge. Mrs Hopper didn't do anything; she drifted around the house, growing paler, becoming translucent, like some underwater creature becoming invisible among the floating weeds. Mrs Hopper, they said in serious, low tones, suffers from melancholia. I voiced this once, and my mother told me I should never say that word.
One day, when my mother and aunt and I came home from the pictures, we saw that the tapestry cushion had gone from the chair on the veranda. It was nowhere to be found. This was a moment of powerful realisation and sensation for me. I have never really learned to acknowledge the disappearance of things; I still always go round and round in desperate circles searching for the thing that has gone, imagining it back in its place. My mother would pray to Saint Anthony; I pray to Saint Anthony. Often this works; but in the case of the tapestry cushion, the prayer was a long time in being answered.
But for ages the disappearance was a complete mystery. Eventually the cushion was replaced by one on which there was a scene displaying hunting dogs. It lacked the power of the woman on the swing.
A few years later, when she was about eight, Mrs Hopper's daughter Marion came home from boarding school on vacation. She was allowed to have a birthday party arranged by one of her aunts. I was invited. There was dress code for parties: a girl had to have black patent shoes with ankle straps, silky white socks, and a dress made from organdie. My dress was dreamy pink with black velvet bows, inspired by something Deanna Durban was wearing in a framed, signed portrait that hung beside my sister's bed. We also had, from my mother's childhood, a signed photograph of Mary Pickford. I remember the sight of all the organdie dresses at the party, dresses like flowers in a garden, pale poppies floating, roses opening in the sun. All hair was curled, all faces shining.
Mr Hopper took some photos as we sat around a table on the back lawn, under a willow tree. There was fairy bread with hundreds and thousands, butterfly cakes, chocolate frogs in green jelly set into the top of a sponge cake. Remember Mr Hopper was a pastrycook. The birthday cake itself was a fruit cake decorated with white icing all roughed up and studded with pink rosebuds in which stood eight candles. As well as the candles there were fine miniature silk flags. Union Jacks and Australian flags which we always had on our birthday cakes. The flags had to be removed before you lit the candles for fear the silk would catch fire.
Mrs Hopper stood wanly about in a navy blue dress with a very old-fashioned white lace collar. Her hair was done neatly in a bun; she fascinated me. She stood in the doorway, a picture of bewildered melancholy, a stick-figure waiting for the party to be over.
Happy Birth-day, dear Mar-ion.
We played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and had a treasure hunt, following clues and finding bracelets and rings in cunning places. Then some of us went into Marion's playhouse where all the furniture was small and made from plywood and cane. Everything there was miniature and flimsy. Except for one thing – the tapestry cushion with the picture of the woman on the swing.
I knew it was our cushion; and I still know it was ours. But I said nothing. It was as if I had been caught in a misdemeanour, the transgression of knowing. I was in possession of a piece of secret truth. I was thrilled. I had the power to tell or not to tell. I decided it was more interesting not to tell. There was innocent Marion in her pale lemon dress with gorgeous apricot flounces, bustling about her playhouse, unaware of the several meanings attached to the cushion. She was fat like her father. It is of course possible that the Hoppers had an identical cushion which had been discarded and abandoned in the playhouse; but I didn’t think so. I was quite sure it was ours.
In an instant the scene came to me.
My mother and aunt and I are out at the pictures. We are in the dark, the three of us, sitting on the red plush seats, watching the flickering screen. We are all warm and close; I am leaning against my mother, a paper bag of pink and white toffee and coconut in my hands. A dashing man in evening dress embraces a woman in a gown like a satin nightdress. They are on a terrace in the moonlight. The next day, the man will go to war.
Mrs Hopper, wearing a sad, dark flowery dress that is too big for her, too long and much too wide, saw us leave the house in a flurry of hats and gloves and handbags. Such drama and excitement. She saw us going down the hill, imagined us catching the tram, arriving at the pictures and getting the tickets, going in, sitting down. The red velvet seats. It gets dark. Can she even begin to imagine the paper bag of pink and white sticky lollies?
In her stockinged feet she patters down her front path, hesitates at the gate, and then keeps going. She crosses the sleepy road and opens our gate, brushes past the cypress hedge, pads up the path between the rose bushes, past the palm tree, up the steps onto the veranda. She pauses, looks back at her house, almost loses her nerve. Then she sits down in the armchair, sighs, leans back and shuts her eyes. It’s not the first time she has done this; a couple of times before she has spent the afternoon on our veranda when we were out. This is the great adventure, getting out, crossing over, trespassing, stealing the air on our veranda.
Unable to see her own house because our hedge is in the way, she begins to imagine it, shuts her eyes and thinks of her empty house staring at her from across the street. Imagines one day going further, stepping off our veranda and tiptoeing down the hill, around the bend, over the next hill – and away. If she went, they would find her and bring her back. She has sometimes heard of people who disappear, who go out to buy a newspaper or a pound of butter or a bag of onions and are never seen again. The daring, the planning. And an instinct in her tells her she belongs to those people. How to get to them? Where is that company of laughing, singing invisibles? Gathered round the tables in a distant inn, they tell each other stories of far away and long ago when they were shop assistants and postmen and barristers-at-law and the wives of prominent pastrycooks. Another life, they say. That was me, they say, in another life.
Mrs Hopper opens her eyes and sees that the shadows on the grass are lengthening. Must be getting home. Must make a move, cross the road, cross the river, bridge the gap. She can scarcely bear to get out of the armchair. She stands up, takes a breath, and makes as if to leave. Then on the spur of the moment, in the twinkling of an eye, she turns around and scoops up the tapestry cushion, holds it close, hugs it, buries her face in it and weeps. Swiftly the tears bubble from her eyes, pour in terrible droplets onto the woman on the swing. Teardrops stain the dress, the blossoms on the trees; the hands of the bishop are slippery with salty tears. The dolphin opens wide his grinning jaws and drinks the teardrops in. The Baron de Saint-Julien takes his hat and with it wipes from his eyes the billowing tears of the sorrowful Mrs Hopper.
She burrows her face in the cushion for one despairing moment and then, the cushion in her arms, she dashes from our garden, across the road, back into the safety of her own prison-house. She shuts her door and sinks down beside a marble pedestal on which rests the marble head of a girl wearing a marble bonnet. For a long time Mrs Hopper huddles at the foot of the pedestal, crying almost silently into the cushion.
In due course, somebody tosses the cushion, a foreign, unexplained damp object, into Marion’s playhouse.
A woman comes each morning to do Mrs Hopper's housework, hoovering the flowery carpets, shaking the silky drapes, dusting the china ornaments, washing, ironing, straightening, putting the dinner on. One day the woman finds a strange, pictorial cushion – a man lying on the ground looking up a woman’s dress.
Do you want this Mrs Hopper? Oh, no, Iris, just put it in the garden shed or something.
Too pretty, in a way, for the shed, it goes into the playhouse. The wily hand of St Anthony of Padua places it in Marion's playhouse where it waits in patient silence, woman on swing caught in laughing motion, waits until I come to have my prayers answered, and silently identify my property.
And just as I somehow understood that one thing Mrs Hopper needed was a decent sort of sex life – m falling into the keen embrace of Errol Flynn perhaps? – I also understood her romance with the cushion. The cushion was a trophy, a piece of booty from our veranda. It was a comfort, a triumph – and finally an embarrassment, a hollow victory. But what on earth do you do with a thing like that, once you have stolen it and taken it home? If she gave it to Iris, who knows, it could end up where it came from. The ways of housekeepers with strange stolen cushions are devious and dark. Not easy to conceal, the cushion goes, oversize, on a chair in Marion's playhouse.
My discovery, the answer to my prayer, made the party brighter and more interesting for me. Forget the frog-pond cake, the fluttering butterfly cakes with cream and jelly, the rose-embossed birthday cake – 1 had a piece of awful knowledge.
Awful knowledge. Mrs Hopper was a thief. Now that was the kind of thing I collected.
And thoughts are easier to hide than cushions. The whole business was filed in my memory. I went about my own affairs calmly, piecing together stuff to feed my understanding of how the world around me worked. I kept notebooks in which I drew pictures of hundreds and hundreds of families, all the members named and given biographies. The intricacies of their stories and relationships absorbed me – such talents, such deformities. I could dish out to these people anything I liked. The notebooks were for me alone. They were ways into thrilling secretive worlds to which only I had access. If you asked me what I was doing, so busy with my notebook. I would tell you I was doing nothing. But I filled a pile of large Spirax books that my father used to give me.
I drew a picture of the interior of Marion's playhouse, and I put the cushion, sketched in great detail, on a chair.
The episode of the knifing by the rival pastrycook had gone into a story long before – a matter of marital infidelity, of which there was quite a bit about the place – and also the embezzlement of funds.
Because I now write fiction professionally, people sometimes ask me how long I have been writing, and when it was I first decided to become a writer, and where I get my ideas from. I was at it long before the episode with the Fragonard cushion – but it was incidents such as this that nourished and confirmed me in what I do.
I think it’s a bit odd the way so many people quiz writers about how long, why. I sense that painters, for instance, are not so often asked these questions. I daresay it is so because the fabric of fiction is the stuff of everyday life, and the words are free, and the materials for writing are pretty cheap too. So the questions people ask writers are partly about why the writer can write, or imagines she can, while so many other people with, it would appear, similar material, cannot, or at least do not, do it.
In my own case, perhaps part of the answer lies in my position as the youngest girl, adrift from my sisters while they went to school, alone with women who were busy with their own imaginations, telling each other stories of their lives and observations. The things I heard during afternoon teas would make your hair curl. Nobody thought I was listening, let alone understanding. Sometimes someone would say that little pigs have big ears, but then they would laugh and continue anyway. As if little pigs were not going to stash the stuff away and reproduce it fifty years down the track. I listened and made the best of the materials I was given. And the thing, the process, got a grip on me early – never mind that I was forty-six before I had a novel published by a real publisher. It was an obsession; it still is an obsession. I can't tell you the fun I have had writing this essay. Part of the answer to the question of why I write fiction is in here somewhere. Perhaps if I ever find the old Spirax cartridge notebooks I might get some more clues. But only clues.
I write fiction because I believe it is the thing I do best.
Mrs Hopper died of old age.