Ceridwen Dovey’s most recent collection of stories, Only the Animals, was published this September. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Megan Mayhew Bergman said the collection “unflinchingly illuminates human nature, and makes clear that the rest of the natural world can only bear witness.”
What makes a person want to write fiction? There’s no one answer, of course, and anybody who feels moved to do it has their own private menagerie of reasons, some of them more sanitary than others. In my experience, it often feels closest to a form of addiction. There’s a beat between having a thought and writing it down, and that small pause is as pleasurable and alluring as any drug, for it’s where the magic happens: somewhere between my brain and my fingers, I discover what it is I want to say. It’s the unfolding mystery of it—a guessing game with my own unconscious, or at very rare moments, the uncanny feeling that some other consciousness is working through me—that keeps me at it. To paraphrase Auden, you don’t know what you know until you write it.
But when I fell pregnant with my first child, I lost all desire to write fiction for many months. The need I had lived with for much of my life—as for many writers, my first taste of self-expression through words in childhood marked the beginning of my addiction to that fertile loop of thought and language—dissipated overnight. It wasn’t just the distractions of nausea and exhaustion; it felt to me as if a new and entirely different brain had been implanted in my skull. Not only did I feel zero desire to sit down before my computer and discover what I wanted to say, but the very activity struck me as ridiculous. It seemed unimaginable to me that I would ever again want to spend my time excavating my own thoughts, fossicking for tiny bits of gold amidst the piles of rubble. If writing fiction had been an addiction, then I had been miraculously cured.
Before this happened, I’d been prone to complaining about my uncontrollable need to write, thinking of it as a sentence imposed on me by the unchanging peculiarities of my personality. A burden, in other words, one I couldn’t escape, embedded as it was in the bundles of my neurons and whatever else it was that made me me. It feels shit to write, but it feels more shit not to write, had been my mantra, stolen from some writer or another.
For the first few weeks with my new, writing-addiction-free brain, I felt cautiously relieved and curious about my own post-fiction universe. So this was what it felt like simply to live one’s life without the nagging urge to capture it in written form! I could be totally present during experiences (picking apples in the Blue Mountains, for example, or taking part in a protest in the Sydney CBD) that no longer needed to be catalogued and stored away for possible future use. My notebook stayed refreshingly blank—in what I at first liked to think of as a reflection of my new, clear brain, finally rid of the impulse to archive, in Joan Didion’s words, “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” Most of all, I felt relieved no longer to be trapped within the narcissistic circular thinking of a fiction writer, who takes as his or her primary subject the self in all its permutations: the yen always to be recording this is what it is like to be me.
Other careers began to suggest themselves to me in rosy tones: I could be a teacher, or a psychologist, or a market gardener, or run for a place on my local Council. I could be really and truly useful to society, do a job with a concrete, visible output at the end of every day. I was not alone, I am aware, in fantasizing about having a “real job.” In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, an aspiring writer, wishes that she could be as useful as a Russian interpreter she meets at the UN: “It mightn’t make me any happier, but it would be one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles.” In an interview with Primo Levi, Philip Roth speaks of Levi’s work as manager of a paint factory in reverential tones, and makes it clear he envies him his trade, his access to a whole other masculine world of chemistry and paint-making processes, far from the abstractions of writing. Levi, on the other hand, insists it is just a job, with all the usual irritations; that he only works there because he wants to get a pension.
But as the weeks of my pregnancy passed, and my notebooks and laptop gathered dust, a terrible grief hit me at what I had not properly valued and now had lost forever. It was disconcerting to think that all it took was a few changes in brain chemistry, some hormonal shifts, to dislodge what had always felt essential to my being. Who was I without the desire to write? How would I cope with the unpredictability of life without being able to process it, reshape it, assert control over it at a remove, in my writing, giving myself the illusion of being in charge? How did this change my relationship with my parents and sister, all of us united in this bizarre desire for creative self-expression? Who would still love me if I could no longer be clever with words? How would I be clever at all without them?
When whatever hormonal brain-bath that had been causing these changes in me evaporated, quite suddenly, at the twentieth week in my pregnancy, the first emotion I felt upon realizing my need to write had returned was elation. I didn’t trust it at first, worried my brain was still playing tricks on me, but the need persisted, and one day I opened up my computer and looked at the short stories I’d been writing before the pregnancy, about animal souls who have died in human conflicts.
I started a new one, and have never felt such joy in writing: finding my way back to the person I had always been.
In spite of their sometimes depressing themes, I’d like to think that the stories in what became Only the Animals are also a celebration of writers and writing. When I look at the stories now, they feel like a reminder I put down for myself in print to never ever take for granted or complain again about my strange addiction, and always to remember what a great privilege it is to make my living with words.
Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin, was published in fifteen countries, short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award, and selected for the U.S. National Book Foundation’s prestigious 5 Under 35 honors list. The Wall Street Journal named her one of their “artists to watch.” She studied social anthropology at Harvard and New York University, and now lives with her husband and son in Sydney. Only the Animals recently won the 2014 Readings New Australian Writing Award.
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