Mantel again. She says every moment has its hinterland. It sounds gorgeous, but what does she mean?
It reminds me of Herta Muller’s imagery: the handbag becomes bigger than the city. I could write a book about the idea of that enormous handbag but it’s hard to write just one sentence explaining it. Maybe it’s the enormity of what can happen inside the telling, the distortions required to make something true also seem real. Or it’s about focus and perspective.
An enormity is held but not yet told inside this moment. It could be any moment, but it’s not. It’s this one. This moment has a history and a cause, an absence and an effect, holding these things inside itself, turning your gaze in that direction, maybe while it picks your pocket. Did you feel somebody brush past you just now? Is your wallet still there? Maybe your identity card is missing?
It was just one moment that changed forever the way I feel about Rotorua. Rotorua, where our bags were stolen. Always I think of that moment when I hear that city named. Always I recall the feeling of dread when we returned to the car and found the doors open. The moment we saw the bags were gone. What I lost in those bags! Things of no value to anybody else, not to mention the means to continue the journey north. We were still so far from Auckland, far from home, the tank less than a quarter full, and almost lunchtime. Going to the police and then the bank, getting some cash through trust and good fortune but still rattled and upset.
It seemed appropriate to buy bags of lollies at the gas station when we were finally on our way out of that stinking city. And as we left the fifty kilometre zone and faced the open road, we were suddenly inside another moment. I wound down the car window and started shouting, “here, take it all! Have a lolly too!”
And I threw a pineapple chunk out of the window onto the highway. And then my son threw out a fruit jelly, a yellow one although it was his favourite flavour. He shouted “take it! We don’t care, Rotorua arseholes!” And then we threw out more and more, then by the handful, until all the lollies were gone and we were screeching with joy.
The moment is where everything happens. If I had not lost my diary and my address book and my camera and my grandmother’s broach, would I have cared as much as I cared in that moment? Those things that lay in the vast hinterland of the moment, a hinterland of years and people and connections. Is that what it means? Is that what gives a moment weight?
The angst between handing in the first draft and the workshop
I wrote the auto part of my auto-fiction, only to discover that I’m sickened by it. Now that it has gone out to other people, I want the earth to swallow me. The complexity of my response throws me into confusion.
I have told secrets and feel afraid. Everything that kept me quiet then and for the decades that followed, the threat of violence and other harms so deep they’re wordless, instinctive – all that risk I have invited into my present. What will happen to me now? Then I tell myself, it’s alright, I’m not eleven or six or twenty anymore.
Then I feel so over the whole thing, immediately I want done with it. Perhaps the writing of it was the part that matters, not the part where others read it. Now I reject it, almost hate it, feel disgusted, compromised. What does the writing ask for? What does it do? Maybe worst of all, what does it make me? By telling these secrets, a mask is torn away. It’s less a story than a confession.
I imagine starting fresh and telling a new story, a more interesting story and without that abject taint, stripped of abstract defences, less ethically difficult, a less selective truth that exists somewhere deeper in the story. A fiction? I imagine a new angle which is subjective to the point of objectivity, if that’s even possible. I could try slanting light down into the mine shaft, right down to the solid ground at the bottom and illuminating the emptiness. I might get a whiff of sour air, but also a glint of something tracing through, a glittering vein, something to explain how and why. I imagine this story without those troubling aspects that now seem like a sheaf of evidence leading towards a judgement.
Yet I’m also relieved that it’s in the light now. I get a sense of freedom. I still want and need to tell the story, somehow I need to say “It was like this.” Because when I was living it, I was trapped inside a story told by him, like a tattoo he made on my skin. I need rewriting, redrawing. So the writing process becomes a ladder out of the attitude towards myself that his narration of my life so powerfully inscribed. Or maybe a chainsaw that finally cuts through the hedge of thorns and brambles separating me from the world, and I kiss my own lips and wake up.
I want to tell a good story because in the middle of all that, I found one. When I woke up this morning I thought about that other story, the one about twins and the problem of a shared fate. So that’s what I’m going to do now. Ditch most of the previous story because its that awful thing, a trauma story, a victim’s howl of pain, which anyway nobody will want to believe, since I seem like just another middle class middle aged white woman, which is to enter another category of irrelevance, a new era of silence.
What am I really afraid of? Is this story a monster, or does it make me into one? That abject monster, the victim? I worked hard for a long time not to be a victim, but is it just part of my identity, like a middle name? Have I written a psychological profile that will make people fear and dislike me, when all I want is love? But wait – haven’t I decided that love is pretty much impossible?
You know what? I don’t know what I’m doing or where it’s going. Although now I wonder if maybe what it really is, is just a lot more work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elaine Webster studied for her MA in Creative Writing at IIML in 2019, and wrote the book she’s tried to write for years. Born in Northland, she studied and worked in Dunedin for decades, and now loves Wellington.