When you write a book, you are suddenly perceived as an expert in whatever your book is about. Which is terrifying. And feels untrue.
I’m not an expert on anything I’ve ever written. For me, writing fiction is a way to explore things that I might not otherwise have the words for.
When I look back at the myriad of novel manuscripts I wrote as a teenager – both finished and incomplete (and all terrible) – I am struck by how much I have used fiction to understand.
When I was fourteen, I wrote a story about an unknown half sister coming home. My half sister is still unknown to me, a stranger, but the story helped me untangle my mess of feelings. It helped me understand. When I was fifteen, I wrote about parents being separated. I wrote about belonging – about the land. At sixteen, I wrote a story about mental illness. At seventeen, I wrote about religion; at eighteen, about drinking and art and – well, being eighteen. At nineteen I wrote a story about dementia – I had been living with my grandmother for ten years and by that stage she had very advanced Alzheimer’s. At twenty, I spent the year writing short stories – flickers of colour. At twenty-one, I wrote a story about drug addiction and belonging – influenced by my work in the drug and alcohol sector.
These were the things I wondered at, and so they became the things I wrote about.
When I wrote In the Quiet, I was wondering about death and motherhood and grief and family. And about the tangle of these things, against the backdrop of a small country town.
I know grief, but it is my own grief. I know family, but it is my own family. I know grief, loss and trauma theory – but what is theory? I don’t know what it is to be a mother. I don’t know what it is to lose someone in such a quick and violent way. I don’t know so much and, post-publication, the things I didn’t know seemed so much more important than the things I did know.
I didn’t know anything.
I kept telling myself this. That I didn’t know. That I still don’t know. And the panic settled like something chipped and hard, deep down in my stomach. There was this sense of being a fraud. Because, although I had dreamt this story up and written it and edited it and published it, there was still a sense that I didn’t know it the way I should. That because I couldn’t fully articulate what I had explored – because I couldn’t voice the issues in any other way than fiction, it felt like I was letting my entire story down.
It comes down to the intimacy and hidden nature of writing itself. Even if you’re writing in the most supportive, open environment imaginable, writing is still personal; it is still done alone. Even if you only write in company and even if every word you write is read.
Writing is a lonesome thing.
And I think I have pinned too much onto the time spent writing. As though it’s a sort of metamorphosis where writers become all-knowing, experts of their texts.
I didn’t feel altered by the private process of writing my story. I didn’t feel the way I imagined you should feel when you have published a book. I didn’t feel all-knowing. At the time, I didn’t feel worthy of being the voice of this story.
In the Quiet has been out for a few weeks now, and I’ve relaxed.
I realise that there is a certain knowledge that comes from exploring something so slowly, over so long. Even without the words, it is still an exploration; still a sort of understanding, even when it doesn’t feel like it is. Writing fiction is a sort of strange vicarious learning. You learn from the characters and circumstances and settings you’ve created. Writing fiction is not simply putting in – you get so much in return.
Hearing people talk about the story has sparked me; enabled me to come up with my own ways of describing how and why I have written In the Quiet the way I have.
I’ve realised that I knew more than I’d thought. And what I didn’t know? What I still don’t know? It’s okay. It’s okay to not know it all. It’s okay to be honest; to admit that I’m not sure why I wrote something the way I did. That it was an instinct, not something cognitive. I felt like I had to have the answers, but sometimes the answer is ‘I’m not sure’. That sometimes, writing emotion means you lose the cognitive; the words that flow along the story. The voiceover, describing how and why. I think that the point of writing isn’t to answer questions, but to ask them. And to listen to the answers – what people have reflected on, taken away, been moved by. Hearing the answers and realising that this story – which has existed in silence, in my mind and typed onto pages – is now a living thing, existing in the minds of others. Becoming more complex, more difficult to articulate. It’s such a wonderful, confusing thing.
Eliza will be in conversation about In The Quiet at the Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club on Thursday 13 August at Readings St Kilda. Further details can be found here. RSVP to email@example.com.