The Dark Wood

If you read my post last week called “Rain” then you have already met Maggie. It is my honour to bring her writing back to you today. Please take some time to read over last week, to click on her name which will lead you to the posts she wrote for Random House. If you can get your hands on it, buy her book ‘when it rains.’ Though that might not be as easy as it seems! Random House sold out and need to do another reprint. My copy has gone to India with Emma, so I can’t loan you that either but seek and you will find.

Go on, pour your glass of red, make your cup of tea…you’ll want to stop by a little longer today.

My friend girlonaswing ever so graciously asked if I would like to write a guest post for her beautiful blog. I tell her ‘Yes, I’d love that’ without really understanding what I was saying yes too. Then I reread her blog.

I’m new to the blogasphere. I’ve dipped my toe in the water through twitter and I’ve managed a couple of tiny posts on my web page and a guest as blogger of the week at my publisher’s blog. But these are really just playing on the edges of the blogging world. To write something for a proper blog, a personal and disciplined blog, a blog with a regular audience, who (I imagine) look forward to sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and peering through the looking glass at the world girlonaswing has created – when I think about it this way – then I become a bit daunted. What, I wondered would one write for such a blog?

Girlonaswing and I share a mother – well not literally – but my mother was the sort of woman who was able to see a hole, a need, a moment in someone’s life and step forward and fill it. She did this for many people. Girlonaswing was one of them. We also share an intimate knowledge of a harder truth. It goes something like this:
“Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wondered off from the straight path.

How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitter.
but if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.”
Dante, Inferno, Canto I

Dante gets us to the beginning. For the heart of the writing problem for anyone trying to tell of the real guts and goriness of life is how to tell the ‘not good’ in order to show ‘the good’ that can come. But Dante’s words don’t necessarily fit into the comfortable version of life that is held up as the norm in our society.

What happens dear blog reader, when your story sits outside the comforting boundaries of 3 kids, mortgage, church on Sundays and a beautiful future? What happens when all you can pray for is a miracle and a miracle never occurs. My mother lived her life doing just that and she taught me the juggle between believing in a better life and living the one that was right in front of me. She taught me about faith – the sort that sustains despite the absence of a miracle.

My story goes something like this:
Married. Happily. Beautiful daughter. Pregnant. Husband suffers massive depressive episode from which he cannot be saved. Gone. Baby born. Breathe. Mother. Stalwart. Warrior Woman. Cancer. 12 weeks. Gone. Breathe. Leave Sydney for a sabbatical from University Lectureship. Find some peace. Resign. Write.

Two scenes:
Scene 1. Age 16 Year 10, fancy girls private school with hardcore intellectual emphasis. Career Night = Doctors (multiple specialists). Scientists (various). Assorted health professionals. An academic. Multiple business women. A politician. A lawyer. A vet. A pilot. Artists (various – cool like photographer, sculpture etc) And a lost and lonely writer.
I have no idea who this woman was. Most probably she was a successful well-known writer who deserved far more than her seat in the corner with no girls lined up to talk to her – or more accurately not too many parents wanting to encourage daughters in this particular direction. But not my mother. Oh no. She made a beeline for her, dragging me with her and we had an awkward conversation – none of which I remember. But what has stayed with me was my mother’s valuing of my secret desire to write.
Scene 2. 16 yrs later, mother of two, motherless. I’ve left the city and my relatively successful career trajectory as an academic. It’s midday. My 2 year old is miraculously asleep. I have a moment. I curl on the couch and write to order what has happened to me. I draft and redraft a memory of the beginning of my husband’s breakdown.

I take it to an editing workshop at Sydney University. It garners praise. I resist offers to publish, sensing it’s too soon. A wonderful friend and experienced writer says: “write it, but put it in a drawer.” I write it. I put it in the drawer and I write another history book. This, my second book is a job. A piece of work, its shape is formed around the lives of long dead pioneers. But the writing of it is good because it means I can stay out here in the country and despite its small readership, the writing of it adds to my experience of understanding how sentences form paragraphs and paragraphs form chapters and chapters lead to books. This is not knowledge to underestimate.

Which brings us to the matter of the paper in the drawer and the journey through the dark wood.

My two year old is now seven and that stack of paper is now a book. The process of transformation from the first scrawls made sitting on the couch to the final reality of the bound book has been a journey both metaphorical and real. When I took the stack of paper back out of the drawer something had shifted. I had a new perspective on it – the words and scenes had a distance from me that had been absent when I first wrote them. I could start to approach the question of whether I wanted to work these pieces of paper up into a book or just let them be a personal record for me of the shift in my thinking.

Dante’s words about the bitter place and his injunction to talk of it hint at the discovery of ‘self’ that can lie at the heart of the writing process. Girlonaswing’s blog is her record of the pain, fear, hope and faith she has lived over the last year and I think it is this – the telling of the dark in order to see the light that so typifies her writing. I suspect it’s this telling that makes people continue to drop by and read.

When I pulled those papers out of the drawer the question of why write seemed to sit heavily over them. I couldn’t get past it. So I let the pages sit a bit more and built next to them a tower of books, both fiction and non-fiction. They were books on loss, on suffering and surprisingly, in the best of them, on hope. And I thought. And what I thought was: Why does reading of someone else’s journey though darkness bring into sharp focus our own?

I write so I might know. Not so I might be known. It’s an important distinction and brings to mind the words of my PhD supervisor who used to peer at me over the top of her glasses as I sat in her room and sprouted forth with great authority on what I had read that week. “Write it down” she would say “And then we will see how well you understand these thinkers whose work you so effortlessly dismiss”. Well she wasn’t quite so cruel, but that is what she meant and she was right. I have not thought through something, I have not really understood it until I have written it.

And so I wrote and then I published to bear witness to the dark forest and light that exists within.

There are things we can’t change in our lives. I can’t change that my husband and my mother died. Girlonaswing can’t change that her daughter had cancer and continues daily, her walk back to health. But through the reconstruction of our journeys on the page we seek a connection with others and perhaps, if we are lucky a moment of peace with the things that we cannot change. So here we are, the three us, girlonaswing, my mother and me – linked through hardship, through the knowledge of how children delight and exhaust and enrich and crush you all at once. We are linked because we dared attempt to describe the dark of the wood, to say the unsayable, to write the bad in order to see the good.


Filed under Life

3 responses to “The Dark Wood

  1. I sat through the same Scene 1 at similar, ridiculously exclusive all-girls private school blah blah blah, except there was no lost & lonely writer. Heads of international fashion houses, hardcore business moguls, lawyers, doctors, aviation engineers, yes, but no writers. I sat through the evening with the knowledge that I was expected to line up behind one of the doctors, & regale her with my ambition to follow in her footsteps (lielielie). So uncomfortable did I feel, that I left before the guest speakers had finished speaking. I didn’t wait for the let’s-line-up-behind-these-people-&-bat-our-eyelashes-in-awe part of the night. Instead I walked down to Balmoral, sat in a cave on the island with nothing but the ocean in front of me, & I wrote.

    I wrote everything I wanted to be, & all the things I didn’t. I terrified myself. I wrote pages & pages, stuffing them into my blazer pocket as I finished so they didn’t blow away. It was the first time I’d ever acknowledged that I wanted to lead a very different life to the one that had been planned out for me. It was frightening. Liberating. At the same time.

    I went home that night to my parents’ excited faces. ‘I think I’m interested in being a surgeon,’ I lied, ‘or maybe international law.’ I went to bed with the secret that I had just unlocked the door to this world that I never even knew existed. Words. The next day I went to my English teacher & asked her if there was any point in me continuing with my writing. “Don’t tell anyone I told you this,” she whispered to me in an empty classroom, “but yes. Write. Write until your fingers bleed. Write because you have to, because you’ll die if you don’t….” & then the class started filing in. We went back to talks about ‘how to maximise your UAI’ & ‘deciphering Board of Studies verb lists.’ But I knew then what I wanted for myself. I wanted to write, regardless of whether it stayed in the drawer forever. Better in the drawer than nowhere at all.

    I can’t wait to read your book. The dark forest is dark, but I think there are enough of us in there, each with tiny lanterns in hand, that it will never be completely black. [& oops, I’ve just written you an essay, haha. Sorry!] Hurry up, Random House, reprints please!

  2. Jenny

    Maggie, your mother was a most incredible woman! Your indomitable spirit is testament to what she placed in you. She still lives – her tenacity, her grace, her strength – through you! You brave woman to have come through the dark forest. Thank you for writing.

  3. Pingback: resilience | Girl on a swing

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