But look. The tulips were flowering on my return. The return flight landed at midnight, so I didn’t see them as I made my way to bed but several hours later when I opened the blind and looked down into the garden there they were, like a gathering of flamingos by the lawn, their feathers a ruffle of coral, warming up the bare garden.
So here I am nearing the end of my journal and as I reflect on the experience I find there are some issues, arising from my experiment that I wish to address. First I want to mention pain. When I had finished writing my pain journal I had decided I wasn’t going to talk about pain anymore. But as I was writing this journal, keeping pain out of sight, I thought it wasn't fair on the people who had read my book and who suffer pain, to pretend the travel was a breeze. So I will reveal some things now.
I had thought I could never travel again. The pain was too debilitating and difficult but when my daughter sent me the date for her graduation I knew I had to go. I just had to. So before I left New Zealand I wrote to the author of Living Well with Pain and Illness and asked Vidyamala how she endured jet travel. She mentioned drugs and a stopover lasting several days to rest. Then I visited my doctor seeking an opinion. Her advice was different. ‘You need to get there quickly,’ she said. ‘Do it all in one flight.’ Her reasoning was that a break en-route is energy depleting. You have to drag your bags to a hotel. You have to fall asleep in another time zone and then you repeat the airport check in process and you walk hundreds of miles to your departure gate. ‘Just do it one hit.’ She was absolutely right about that. I also asked for an emergency kit of pharmaceuticals should the pain spiral out of control. I was given a tiny dose of Valium and some codeine, both of which I never had to use. But knowing they were there helped me psychologically.
I’m not sure if this is useful but I will list what else got me through:
- A good sleep at night. I don’t think it matters how you achieve the sleep, as long as you get eight hours solid sleep. In my case I had to wear eye pads for the first ten days in London because the hotel blinds didn’t shut out the light and, as well, I had to wear earplugs to block out the sound of my husband snoring.
- The bubble and fun of travel. I hadn’t counted on that. This was something a pain psychologist had encouraged me to think about. ‘Distraction,’ he’d said, ‘good distraction where mind and body are completely absorbed in an enjoyable experience is one of the best ways to counter pain.’ And it was.
- Cannabis oil. Julian bought me some cannabis oil in Amsterdam and I tried it after I’d been to Piet Oudolf’s garden and after I’d cycled five kilometres across the national park to the Kroller Muller Museum and Sculpture Park and it worked and I wrote about it at the end of an entry, sitting in the green light, on the terrace overlooking the lush landscape, at the Bed and Breakfast de Wandhorst. The only problem though was that I wrote it under the influence and later had to delete it when my daughter, listening to me reading aloud, said, ‘Mum, don’t put that in. It’s a bit nutty.’
- Being non-reactive helped too and refusing to be drawn back into the old conversations that went, ‘This is terrible. This is impossible. I can’t go on.’ It’s much kinder on the mind to think, ‘The pain is a noise. It’s unpleasant but not a catastrophe’ and then to switch attention to the given moment and the activity that’s about to take place, like getting outside to experience the big, wide, wonderful world beyond the door.
Did I achieve the writing aims outlined in the introductory entry? Remember how I started with May Sarton and her idea of ‘writing on the pulse’ capturing whatever is unfolding before you on a given day. Did that work? Yes it did, perfectly although I wrote for longer than planned but that’s okay, I think, for developing and honing your skills as a writer. In fact I think a travel journal could be a very good place to start for anyone interested in writing. It was useful to have a tight timeframe and deadlines to meet, to discover how much you can write in a compressed timeframe of three weeks, which for this project totalled about 33,000 words. Another promise was to edit lightly and to resist the urge to check facts in books and guidebooks, or on Google but I found that impossible. It’s just too scary to be making claims without verifying them.
May Sarton had also said she didn’t go back and change things, meaning she didn’t edit her journals heavily. My writing training began in academia, where theses went through countless drafts, and redrafts and reconfiguring and that is the nature of the work but there was something undermining about the endless toing and froing and the constant checking that your argument is watertight. It can take the light and air from a project and make a writer paranoid and worse, begin to doubt their ability. This seemed to be what Christopher Lloyd was getting at in his foreword to the Christopher Lloyd In My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter (1993.) It was the book he was most proud of because Frank Ronan the editor had allowed him to reproduce exactly what he’d written in his original typescripts for his column in Country Life from scratch, ‘even before it passed through the subeditor’s hands’ and that gave the material a freshness and immediacy.
On the topic of online publishing, and whether a journal written in the moment is a feasible and viable alternative to conventional publishing this is an area where I am slightly shaky especially around blogging and the audience. Probably I should have researched this more thoroughly before I began. Since arriving home I’ve found plenty of articles that highlight the things I should have done before I dived into my project. Through reading the following articles I’ve learned some valuable lessons: ‘Revealed: 19 Things to know Before you Start a Blog,’ posted by Blog Tyrant, ‘11 Things I wish I knew before I started by First Blog’ by Quick Sprout and a slightly depressing article from a site called Social Triggers ‘Why blogs fail’. What I was meant to do first and foremost was establish my audience. I should have created a database of readers and promoted the writing there. Then I was meant to approach other blog sites and, gulp, ask them to let me hitch my journal onto theirs. But even earlier I was supposed to indulge in a dream about which of the blog sites I would most like to be associated with. I realised then that I hadn’t given the project enough serious thought because I have no idea who I would like to connect with. But I will tune in and work on that and consider, as well, the possibility of a reciprocal relationship where other writers can be promoted on my website.
The consensus across all these articles seemed to be that you need to provide significant content for a blog and it needs to be well written. The man who calls himself ‘Social triggers’ and wrote the article with the catchy title ‘Why blogs fail’ had some more useful advice. He emphasized the importance of having strong opinions not insipid because you need to make a noise, a splash when you are competing with millions of other bloggers, over 164 million, actually. Visual content and more specifically photos are also the way of the future, apparently. But there are contradictions. The success of online platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, which allow users to upload and share their photos and short videos has also triggered a move away from Facebook and other more word focussed platforms and is encouraging the development of the shorter attention span. And this might not be so good for writers.
The most challenging aspect of publishing a journal on the hop is that you can’t predict your subject matter. You can set up your intentions as I did in my introductory entry explaining that I would be following the things that interest me: nature, gardening, art, architecture, photography and children. The reason why I added children is that when I am with them observing their curiosity and enthusiasms and when I listen to the piercing perceptions that only a child can see and state I feel reassured. I think there is hope for everyone in the confusing maelstrom that is our world today. I also said that I wanted to be receptive to all the good things that come my way:
…to the enchanting and soporific power of Nature, to the small moments of meaningful connection with people, encounters that illustrate our common humanity. I want to be alert to possibility and to acts of human kindness and tenderness that remind me I’m not alone and that it is very good it is to be alive.
There is power in clarifying intentions and voicing hopes, I’ve noticed. By naming what you want and being receptive to opportunity it seems to me those things are more likely to come to pass and that’s the satisfaction of keeping a journal, that you can go back and discover things you hadn’t foreseen, at the time of writing, and find out how they came about. The thing I couldn’t anticipate however was the exact nature of my subject matter and how it would roll out. I did not expect, for instance, to end up writing so much art history. That was a surprise and perhaps on reflection it wasn’t a good idea. A reader who wants to follow a writer’s journal may not necessarily want to read art history through the lens of a very partial viewer, while the reader who enjoys anecdotes about the funny and the odd might not want to read much about nature, so maybe that material should go into a nature journal. Another person, because I did seek feedback during the process, was bothered when I began rolling backwards into memoir. She felt I’d wandered right off the track and perhaps she was right, that I should write memoir in the context of a life writing project and discipline my mind to not gallop out of the stable and leap over fences and hedges taking the foliage with me. But I don’t know. For me writing is an organic process and I can’t write to order. I think the creative process needs room to unfold naturally and spontaneously.
My biggest reservation about this journal is that there was a problem inherent in the topic and I think I should state it here. This journal has been about a privileged, middle-aged woman on holiday (I want to cry out and protest at that label because I don’t feel middle-aged and I don’t want to be pigeonholed), and the travel theme is problematic because not everyone gets to be so lucky. I have a funny friend, who shakes me out of taking myself too seriously. She put it into perspective when she said in a text, ‘there’s nothing to beat an opinionated post menopausal woman doing Europe.’
I discussed these issues the other day, with my writing group. I said the thing that really troubles me is that I had to write a journal about going on holiday, gliding up and down the Swiss Riviera, for goodness sake, when nobody really wants to read about a woman with a flash travel schedule and a pool. And they all laughed at me, the whole group, and they said “‘Deborah, Deborah, you can’t please everyone. You have to follow the advice you to gave to us, ‘To thine own self be true.’”
So in being true to who I am I have decided to end this journal where it started, in the pool. When I slipped back into the chilly water today to say hello again to the trees and the birds and the monarch butterflies and the flowers, I noticed that something had changed in my absence. For two years now I have felt irritated by the presence of a very untidy, scruffy, dead tree arising above the green on the neighbour’s section. I had tried to accept its presence noting how the birds liked landing there. For ages I had observed a kingfisher, sitting quite still, with its jaunty beak outlined against the sky, hoping I would catch the shimmer of blue pigment when it flew away and I’d also noted how it provided a resting post for the screeching rosellas, flashes of turquoise and lime and red running past my vision. I had tried to accept the dead tree but I continued to detest it.
Today, however, something was different. The tree had gone, just like that, possibly in the recent twisting gale, or maybe the neighbour got tired of it too. And I felt so pleased to see the tree canopy restored to its former leafy glory that my spirits bubbled up and a series of fresh thoughts flooded in. I realised there’s so much more I want to do now that the journal is finished. I have a new course on Nature Writing in development that will be taught in two locations, on campus at Auckland University and also in a famous writer’s house in a wilderness location on a west coast beach and while I have ideas and resources and writing techniques at my fingertips what I am most looking forward to is welcoming a new group of writers and having them teach me the possibilities of the genre.
The most immediately appealing prospect, however, is returning to the book project ‘The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors’ about the life and work of Joy Cowley, Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Fiona Kidman, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Philip Temple and Albert Wendt. I relish the thought of re-engaging and collaborating with each individual author on their chapter and working hard to bring their amazing stories to the reader. And I will enjoy learning from the elder practitioners about how to weather the challenges of the writing life and how to stay in the game.