A young magpie is learning to sing in our garden. It has the melody almost right, but sometimes its voice is scratchy and strained.
I know it is a young magpie because I’ve seen it. Charmed by the pure beauty of the tune, and the comical moments when that falters, I’ve gone outside and squinted up into the twiggy thicket of the melaleuca armillaris to see where all those happy, not-quite-right sounds are coming from. Sure enough, there is the bird with feathers not yet as sleek and black as they could be, raising its beak and gargling away.
This diligent daily practice has all the careless delight of a writer not yet trying too hard. This is my offering for today, the young magpie seems to say. Take it, or leave it …
Now the world is full of websites and Blogs and daylong Facebook posts. There are so many eager ‘writers’, chortling away like the nonchalant bird. They never seem to suffer from Blogger’s Block.
As for this website of mine, alas, how I’ve neglected it. After the initial enthusiasm about posting Jottings here, I was so distracted by my new book coming out last year that I stopped for a while.
Then Life, as it invariably does, tossed some other complications in the way. My mother-in-law needed to be settled into full care in the Hostel attached to her Retirement Village. The unit she’d lived in for the past twelve years had to be emptied and prepared for sale. A lifetime’s accumulated belongings had to be sorted and only the most precious could fit into the single room she now lived in. Time for writing even the briefest of jottings eluded me.
Once I’d stopped, it became harder and harder to imagine that anyone would actually be interested in reading regular ‘blogs’. I started to worry more and more about what sort of Jotting I should put here – so, inevitably, more months went by … until what started out as a small doubt and a lack of time to write something ‘interesting’ turned into a monstrous doubt about whether it was worthwhile writing anything!
It is what cripples writing, this state of mind: anxiety about an audience and about whether the writing is worth it or not.
This was not something which ever really worried my mother-in-law. When she wrote, she decided on her audience, and that was that.
The printouts of her stories filled up several boxes in her spare room. Mostly she was chronicling her life so that Martin, her only child, would know about it. Or she wrote for her cousin back in Germany, who’d grown up in the same household and was like a sister to her.
But she did want other readers too. In the big piles of copies, there were so many versions marked ‘Edit again’.
It was a heartbreaking job, having to throw so much paper out, trying to keep only two copies of each story – one for her, one for us – and dumping the old drafts.
It felt like sacrilege. But it seems so unlikely she will ever go back to those stories. At 91, she can barely sign her name. Her memory, which was her great pride, exists only on those typed pages now. Even if all the stories of her life up until 89 are intact, somewhere, far beyond the vacant face we mostly see, her ability to remember what she’s saying stops after a sentence or two.
When my mother-in-law decided in her 70s that she wanted to write, I passed on to her my first computer. It was a little Amstrad: a very clever machine when I bought it in 1989. Neat as a briefcase, but clunky and heavy, with a screen the size of a postcard; no connection to the Internet, not many frills at all compared with laptops of 2013 – but hooked up to a monitor and a printer, it was a super-duper typewriter, which was all she needed (or wanted). ‘I’ve been sitting at my computer all afternoon,’ she used to say so proudly, after she’d had a good session with it, typing up another reminiscence.
In the beginning, she planned to send her writing out into the world. Readers Digest was her goal. She was so shocked by their rejection letter she swore she would never attempt that again.
All her stories from then on have “for family only” handwritten across the printouts – apart from the odd one written specially for the Villa Voice, her Retirement Village’s newsletter. With a life-history that included experiences of the second world war in Germany and migration to a totally unfamiliar way of life in Australia, not to mention her formidable intelligence and curiosity about everything from dugongs to Goethe, she was never short of a subject.
Every week, there used to be a letter from her in our mailbox. Even when we talked on the phone every few days, still the letters would come, saying the same things, usually, but the recording seemed to be important to her.
For years, I think she had written ‘home’ to Germany like this – every week, to her mother, or her cousin, or her aunt – the few family members left there. It was more than just a duty. She enjoyed the act of making her life into entertainment as well as a historical record.
Like the young magpie, mostly she just did it, with an enviable nonchalance and certainty that it was worthwhile. Blogger’s Block? Until her mind started to fail her, that would never have been a problem. If this magic of instant communication via a website had only happened sooner, she would have been a very happy blogger.