False Starts- The Price to be Paid?

False Starts. How much do they cost? Another of my beach-comber bottle posts.



Having made a quick sprint to recover this blog, I was called back to the starting line. That dissipated resolve, and led to heavy panting. I am still crouched on the blocks.

The same is happening to the writing of a memoir. I can shape a chapter with some pleasure, but where do any of them fit? It is leading me to ask about the cost of false starts.

As some of my followers know I have recently taken a course whose purpose was to assist defining one’s relevance in this over crowded marketplace, and that course returned each of the participants to their ‘signature story’ their life that had determined their creativity. It was in the life itself that the story begins, and gives the passion to fuel the work.

In my case the life WAS the work, the signature story was written by the Book-to-Come. Every ingredient necessary, every vocabulary mastered, every deprivation cogent. Nothing irrelevant. Okay so far? My life was planned backwards, only I did not realise that, so there was much barking of shins.

I believe this is true of every life; the Soul’s Code to carve out a personal destiny with each sharp knife of experience, whittling away until something steel and slim remains.

Noel and Me 001
Noel- My Christmas Present saddled at the gate 1947

Here’s the problem. Memory is multilayered, not chronological (though some tidy it up that way in autobiography), the important events shine starkly and often without reason or logical context. I can remember some hit-below-the-belt moments that took breath away; my first meeting with a horse whose smell presaged the smell of a baby, not in anyway alike, but alike in their distinctiveness and perfection. Inimitable.  I remember seeing ancient Greek written on a blackboard by a teacher fluent in Greek who teased out the nuances of Agape, Eros, and Charis and I thought that knowledge worth a Persepolis and dying for. I remember a Catholic seminarian singing, on a Lesotho mountain track, Danny Boy in a voice like Bing Crosby’s which made me pine for a country I had never known. These shafts of longing came from other lives and other times. My current one floats like flotsam on those deeper currents.

Try to give such expansions of inexplicable joy any kind of framework (other than poetic fragments) and they enter a straitjacket that rob them of power. I start anew each day, and with each attempt the immediacy is rubbed away, the material worn smooth where it was and should remain, rough or rustic. I am alarmed and increasingly afraid that if I continue they will disappear altogether.

I know that putting one’s house in order, which is what writing a memoir is attempting, is a tidying and systematic process, but for there to be any value in offering it to a reader, it must retain that immediacy, and false starts strip it of vitality. Memory and dreams work best indirectly, from peripheral corners-of-the-eye. Life’s pedantic  frames hang lifelessly, and can be set in any order. The drawers of the decades, open and shut, all over familiar, inter-tangled by unmatched pairs of socks you hope to unite. I want simply to tip them out on the floor and let a reader rifle through them, a circular work without beginning or end.

Starting at the Beginning?

Here’s the rub. Books are chronological, language likewise, and time is the least important component of Memory’s rich store. You can bid a fictional character to guide your story; your own is already set, and I am not interesting to myself. Since I am not a musician it seems I must accept the strait jacket and allow myself some madness.

Does anyone else feel this? Wrestle with it? Have a work-a-day answer?

P.S. Yes I have read ‘How to memoir’ books, and am now reading other people’s mastery of memoirs. Those are other people’s stories, and retain the fascination of the ‘other’.

Author: philipparees

A writer ( mostly narrative poetry) of fiction and non-fiction. Self publisher of fiction and Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God (Runner-up Book of the Year (2013), One time builder ( Arts centre) Mother of four daughters: Companion of old man and old dog: One time gardener, lecturer, wannabe cellist, mostly enquirer of 'what's it all about', blogger and things as yet undiscovered.

20 thoughts on “False Starts- The Price to be Paid?”

  1. Hi Philippa – just a little something to share with you:

    I’ve been reading some Gottfried Benn lately, a book of translations entitled “Primal Visions”. There’s an excellent essay in it, no nonsense and real, with a pared back lyricism, entitled “Artists and Old Age”. A great writer, tough and hard and illuminating. There’s a sobriety about him and cultural pessimism I find absolutely invigorating and refreshing. How about this from a section of a piece of his entitled “Double Life”:

    “How many good starters were seen to fall by the wayside! At first, big avant-garde, some indeed divinely gifted – and at forty they take the family tramping through Andalusia and detail the bullfights, or they discover Hindu introversion on a Cook’s tour. What breaks them, according to my observations, is premature fame, allowing themselves to be typed by critics and admirers. Only if you break yourself again and again, if you forget yourself, go on and pay for it, live under burdens, let no one talk you into occasions to write, but make your own reasons for writing – then, perhaps, then, if a great deal of disappointment and self-denial and forced abandonment is added – then, eventually, you will perhaps have advanced the Pillars of Hercules by a few worm-lengths, perhaps.”


      1. Possibly deterring, Gottfried Benn had a couple year association with the nazis, before that horror fully unfolded and revealed itself; disillusioned Benn promptly disassociated himself. I can see how he was initially fooled into getting involved with that. But he was a man of principle, an individual thinker, so he tore the barbs out of himself to free himself when he discovered the abhorrent and atrocious nature of that with which he had involved himself. There was nothing shifty or two-faced about him. He owned up to his own acts and followed through with his own thoughts to their very end. There’s a bitterness in Benn, a world-weariness, a man who had seen and witnessed much. But he didn’t wallow or feel sorry for himself. For me that makes his more poetic passages all the more beautiful. They have a somber weight and resonance. His writing is great – incisive, terse, a taut lyricism. Nothing at all flabby. Benn did not mince words. I do think you might be invigorated by him, Philippa, because of the harder and sharper stuff in your own self which seeks outlet and expression.


  2. Both of you in this brief back and forth: brilliant. I don’t write novels or poems but I follow the thinking and it’s fascinating. Both of you are a cut above, it appears to me, because you work words and language in a way which seems counter-intuitive to older models of “naturalism” – that are fixed and static – moving rather into something as yet undefined but intuitively and instinctively in the living and breathing unfolding becoming in fact more natural. I recall you mentioned the fractal a while back, Philippa. It would be a marvel if one could actually write something which captured some of that. I’m not sure it could be done. Probably only could be done if a Shakespeare was working with a genius computer programmer, with Einstein providing oversight and direction. There’s this point where the slow, lagging human comes in contact with increasingly complex patterns, and the organic as normally experienced by the human is slowly undermined and finally taken over by what becomes an “alien” form. There’s a breaking point where it gets away from the human. The spiral loses its tremendous internal tension and torque, giving off energy, and turns inside out, and begins sucking and pulling in energy. If you sit in the center of that, Philippa, you could kill yourself. Write yourself into oblivion. You do take great risks, Philippa. (Of course that’s why we who follow you love you.)

    Another discussion which might be had, with all of this in mind, is the writer’s voice and where it should be placed for maximum impact and effect. Of course it’s more thrilling to place it at the driving center of the whirling spiral. Tremendous energy can be gathered in that way and the writing powerful if it can be directed. But as a writer that may mean a shorter piece. A cowboy can’t ride a bucking and snorting bull but for a brief sustained burst. Being up on a bridge with the rapids flowing underneath is definitely the safer place to be. Wisdom dictates get up on the bridge when the waters are rising and increasing in turbulence and violence.

    Another danger is assuming “the voice of God”. Or at least what kind of God and in what way that voice is assumed – a loving God involved in humanity, a judging God who mostly curses and drives insane, a largely indifferent or an absent God who now leaves humanity to its own devices, to destroy or save itself. I figure all writers and artists are ultimately in some sense the God or almighty creators of the universes they represent or portray. But it’s interesting and telling in what ways it manifests. To directly and overtly assume the voice of God, essentially deifying ego, comes with serious consequences. That may be like placing a grenade inside of a large glass jar and lathering the glass with honey and rolling it toward a Bear’s den.


  3. Much resonates here. Structure seemed like a prison to me, until I allowed it to emerge organically in my novels.
    There are sequences in my life that don’t cohere in any linear way. I like the way you put this … ‘… when the process of reincarnation is too much in a hurry to bother with death.’ And yet, whenever a powerful projection brings past hurts blasting up, sequences tend to assume a suitable context. I recently had to crawl once more out of a family pattern. A refrain sounded through the haze of memory, like the X-ray spine of a creature, or a fitting metaphor for the signature of one’s life, in my case, the bridge.


    1. Although chronological structure is the easiest I think it betrays what is pulling it forward. The patterns seem preset in every detail, but cannot be pre-perceived in the telling because growth of understanding adds layers incrementally. I’m trying to find a way to convey this! Your signature bridge comes close to what I seek, only it is too ordered to be wholly true for me. Mine is probably the spiral, ever rotating, ever moving, never as still as a bridge!


      1. Come to think of it, the bridge is where, at intervals, I recover from the rapids, and from where I watch the river flow. At this point in world affairs, if there is such a point other than my framing of it, it’s also a place where sadness haunts.


  4. John you always get to what I am thinking of disclosing before I do! A conversation it already is. I am always split between two voices, the narrative and the corrective, cavilling ‘ah’, ‘hang on’, ‘but, what about?’ daimon that always knows better, knew earlier, orchestrated the whole bleedin thing! He has already drafted a prologue or maybe it will be the epilogue.


    1. You are so far ahead of me, Philippa, older and wiser, but I keep returning to you and thinking about you for good reason. (I look quite a bit into your shadows too. Yes, I do shudder. Sometimes I turn away, but I keep returning and looking, in courage gained from awareness of the light which created those shadows.) I’m still getting to know my daimon and how I should best conduct myself to creatively profit, without being blasted or torn to pieces by it. As you can see, I obviously keep close and compact. It’s one of my strategies. Who knows what wild and crazy things I have in myself if I let myself go more. The most valuable jewels are in the bellies of monsters. You appear to have gotten to know your own daimon quite well, Philippa, the complex, dynamic tension-filled state, and often confused mess and wreck, it leaves you in. It’s a funny, probably ironic thing about giving advice: One seems really to be giving it to oneself. I tell you, “You should do this” or “Maybe you should try that”, and there’s this profound and ineffable cycling going on in the ether. The daimons with many of our words formed into a big inflated balloon play volleyball. When it pops they laugh. But occasionally something really rare falls into their hands and they reach down, cradling it, and lay it silently at our feet.


  5. Why must the material be worn smooth when it should remain rough or rustic? Trust your instincts, Philippa. Trust your readers. Don’t shackle your work to a framework that doesn’t feel authentic – it’s not you and it’s not your story. Write all the pieces and see what you have at the end. My guess is a framework will arise organically and it will be exactly what it needs to be. ❤


    1. Thanks Diana. I did not mean to suggest it ‘should’ be worn smooth, only that writing the story already written, somehow does that ( as opposed to imaginative fiction which lets the story and characters guide the writing). My life is a series of dramatic short stories I think, the process of reincarnation too much in a hurry to bother with death, as distinct from each other as the decades, the marriages, the separated children, the countries, poverty and creativity, themselves. I veer towards writing a life in short stories, as I said to Joe above. Then I could shuffle them and let them fall where they will! Then pin them on a spike of sudden revelation which made them all cohere?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Here’s the rub. Books are chronological, language likewise..” I’m not sure about that. The printing press, as McLuhan showed, codified ideas like margins, the individual, linear thinking, privacy… The book is staged. How to get a-round print? Mosaic, McLuhan said, sensorium. Start anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A good kind of thinking Joe. A mandala construction, only less exact! I’m thinking a story in short stories to be read in any order. Brief tagline synopses so my life according to your mood?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Readers have maybe come to value structure over other characteristics of literature. The “new critics” and then the deconstructionists – all filters down to the everyday reader, but there is the word as magic, “In the beginning,” etc.


  7. I must say: beautifully written staking out the difficulties, Philippa. I shall have no end to enjoyment at your handling of words. I think it would do you good to go a little crazy: without strait-jacket. I don’t see why there needs to be a strait-jacket (though I know what you mean). Flap your arms and sing. Let the neighbors think you’re cuckoo. It seems to me you could choose whatever you like to write about, even the most trivial event, so long as you keep to the rough and rustic you mentioned. I prefer that too. You are best rough and tumble. The great spirit comes through by letting go and allowing the images to come of themselves.

    As I wrote to you before elsewhere, I have total faith in your genius. I only begin to grit my teeth when you doubt yourself too much and begin to hunker down. Maybe you could begin with an impressionistic technique, just writing the first things which occur to you, and letting it all shape itself. You’ve already proven yourself and now have nothing to lose. Where to others at the beginning or midway in their journey in life, it would be a leap into the abyss, for you who has put in her hard work and suffered and paid her dues, it’s now a leap into freedom.


    1. Thank you John! The impressionistic appeals, and life in any order. What I’d like is for the reader to make sense of it for me- an interactive work rather like an ongoing blog and perhaps I might do it that way, and let questions come and incorporate them (if I have any answers) You are right that hunkering down I am not good at- ugly elbows show, feet stick out. Perhaps there is an opening here ‘Blogabook.com’? On this course I devised inspiring ideas for everybody else- none for me. Whaddya think?


      1. I sense in this comment of yours, Philippa, not only interest in pursuing your own personal memoir, but a real enjoyment of helping others too. Doing more for others than for yourself. That’s another way out of personal haunt and nightmare. A going out into the village and returning with the medicine or the remedy. Using what you’ve learned through all your own years of suffering and hardship to guide and teach. The elements and pieces of your memoir which may begin to write itself can be returned to you in that way too. It makes me think that another good “memoir form” may be not so much the interview but the conversation. The spirit of the conversation, the back and forth. The story told by the elder to the young adults, which makes them feel that they can open up and share their own stories.

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