Author Joanne Fedler shares what it means to write.
When I was a young women’s rights activist I thought creativity was self-indulgent, a ‘hobby,’ something to fill the hours when I wasn’t ‘fixing the world.’ Despite this, ever since my dad gave me a copy of Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, Under Milk Wood at the age of fourteen, I wanted to be left alone with words, so I could make shapes the way some people build Lego castles. Reading these lines for the first time, I learned what longing is:
‘To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters’-and-rabbits wood limping invisibly down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widow’s weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfounded town are sleeping now.’
It took too many years of training as a lawyer, practicing as a women’s rights advocate and realizing ‘this isn’t what I want to do with my life,’ to remember how I felt when I read Dylan Thomas. I began to write less as a hobby and more as an offering to the world, a reason for why I am here. And now, a decade later, I cannot imagine a life without writing. People often ask me ‘how do you become an author?’ And here’s what I think:
1. HUNGER: You have to be a little obsessed. There is a nagging appetite, a madness, not dissimilar to the feeling of falling in love. I experience it as a yearning, a disquiet, a pressure on the heart – something that keeps knocking inside me. Terry Tempest Williams says, ‘I wait for a question that obsesses me and keeps me up at night.’ Isabel Fonseca writes, ‘fiction is scratching about in a silent anxiety.’ Writing helps tame my restlessness, allows me a solitude and a gratitude that comes when I finally wrestle my voice to the page. But I wake up the next morning and the hunger is back.
2. IMAGINATION: At her Harvard commencement address, JK Rowling said:
“Imagination … in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
She said that her experiences at Amnesty International as a young woman, where she saw photographs of missing people and tortured individuals, read eye witness accounts of summary trials, executions, kidnappings and rapes, trained her to imagine: “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.”
When we write, we open ourselves to others. We make ourselves permeable. We cannot be creative if we’re not interested in the way other people think or experience the world, if we never look at a different culture, religion or sexual orientation and wonder, ’what would it feel like…? Writing lets me pretend to be other people without having to dress up or get a sex change.
3. VULNERABILITY: When I write, I often feel like a raw, exposed nerve. Some of us will do anything to avoid this feeling and others of us are addicted to it. Feeling, however, is the catalyst for story. Writing that is not real becomes pretentious, clichéd and full of things-other-people-have-thought. The poet David Whyte asks, ‘What is the step you don’t want to take? What is the conversation you don’t want to have?’ On days when I’m feeling brave, I try to start in that place.
I used to think creativity was a form of pampering, like a package at a day spa – selfishly decadent. But, I’ve come to realize that like an echo, it reaches into the world and dislodges the hunger, imagination, and vulnerabilities in others. It is certainly a mystical force. It may, for all I know, be revolutionary.
Yann Martel says it beautifully in Beatrice and Virgil:
‘Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting – that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art – and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed the colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that his book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives.
Joanne is the author of six books including the international bestseller Secret Mothers’ Business. During her years as a women’s rights advocate, she was made Asshole of the Month by Hustler magazine (one of her proudest achievements). She is a motivational speaker, writing mentor and facilitator and takes women on writing adventures to Bali and Tuscany with Womens Own Adventures. Joanne can be contacted at: www.joannefedler.com
Life Balance = Exercise. Solitude. Cuddles.