We’re having a frank conversation.
‘Did you ever run away from home, Mummy?’ she asks. We’re having lunch, just the two of us because it’s a Tuesday and she’ll head back to school in an hour (Swiss school hours…go figure).
‘No, but once when I was about your age I packed a bag and hid it around the side of our house,’ I tell her. I remember it well, that feeling of excitement and anticipation, deliberating over what to include and what to leave out, already mourning the loss of everything I knew, but picturing myself sleeping under a hedge and chewing on the sandwich I would make sure to include. After the sandwich the dream always became a little blurry, although I knew that there would be many adventures, that it would never rain, and that I would find kindred spirits along the way. Just like in all the books I’d read.
‘I’ve thought about it,’ she tells me, ducking her head just a little because, naturally, running away from home also means leaving her parents behind, and that’s sad. But I can see in her eyes that she’s had the same dreams I had when I was her age, and that makes me very happy.
‘What happened?’ she asks, and I tell her that by the time night time rolled around I’d reconsidered, figuring it was probably more fun to read about it than actually do it. And then I tell her that I think my mother actually knew what I was planning and she laughs at the idea of Grandma watching me pack my bag and make my sandwich.
‘I don’t think I’ll do it, either,’ she says, and I tell her I’m glad because I’d really miss her, but that I understand why she might want to, because books make anything seem possible.
We sit outside, the two of us, sandwiches in hand, the cat circling our chairs. It’s almost not-winter, we think, the sky blue but the trees bare, the sun warm but the shade still sending shivers up our spines.
Later, we spend the afternoon planting seeds, already anticipating the herbs and flowers we just know will spring up, although neither of us has ever done this before. My daughter dreams of the fairy garden she is planning on making, complete with miniature swings and tiny little rakes and shovels for the tiny little flowers she’s convinced will grow from the seeds that came in the little paper packet she was given.
We dream, too, of the lake, sitting on the the boardwalk and dreaming of dipping our toes in the water, looking through to the rocks and weed and fish, waiting until we have the courage to jump in. But not yet. We’ll have to wait a couple more months, at least, until it’s warm enough for that.
Still, there’s something in the air that shouts spring, that makes us leave our coats inside and tilt our faces to the sun. Just like our flowers will, we hope.
She’s standing next to me, leaning on the arm of my chair, one arm wrapped around my neck, her hot breath on my cheek.
‘Always writing!’ she cries. ‘writing, writing!’
‘What would you like to me to do instead?’ I ask, knowing already that I’m going to do whatever she asks me to do (within reason!) because she’s right. I am always writing and it is a solitary occupation, although I have almost perfected the art of making appreciative noises or noncommittal replies while still tapping at my keyboard.
‘Disco!’ she cries.
So we go upstairs, shut the door to her bedroom, turn on the glowing jellyfish lamp and the tiny little Christmas tree light that slowly changes colour, select our first song and begin to dance.
For almost half an hour we dance wildly, sometimes together and sometimes apart, sometimes with favoured stuffed animals in our hands, their heads and limbs flying up and down with each movement. The cat lingers out in the hallway, not daring to scratch at the door, and anyone walking up the path next to our house must wonder what is going on.
Soon enough there’s a tap at the door and it’s her father, talking of teeth and bed and we tell him to wait until the end of this next song, and then we are done.
I kiss her good night and go back downstairs, the cat following at my heels, and sit back down at my computer and begin to write, again.
This is a Swiss swan searching for and then scooping up the bugs and algae floating on the surface of the Zürisee, otherwise known as Lake Zurich.
Writing can be a little bit like this sometimes, when you’re searching for the right word and just can’t find it anywhere…
She’s sick, curled up on the couch with a blanket and a few of her favourite stuffed animals. I bring drinks and food, the cat, funny stories, funny voices (for the stuffed animals), tissues, medicine and, above all, myself. I sit and stroke her hair, read aloud from her favourite book, play a gam of Spot It (a stupendous game if ever there was one), retrieve the cat, bring the iPad, fetch another glass of water, and generally do all the things one does when one’s daughter is home sick from school and feeling miserable.
And in the back of my mind I picture a chapter edited, a journal paper read, a topic researched, a brilliant idea put down on paper, knowing full well that even had I had the time it’s unlikely all this would have happened. Because it never does, does it.
But now that I can’t do any of it I am convinced I could have, if only I’d had the chance.
I will now sing the praises of my lovely supervisor.
She is a woman of fine character and discerning tastes. A person who recognises quality and can see potential when it is right in front of her. Furthermore, she likes a nice turn of phrase and appreciates a good metaphor when she sees one…
Yes, she liked my novel! Phew.
This isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. My story will undergo many small changes between now and the finish line, but it’s bones are are in place and solid enough that it can stand up by itself.
So that means it’s time for me to get on with my exegesis. This is the nonfiction half of my Phd, just as big as the novel and just as scary although not for the same reasons. As I’ve said before there’s a real tension between trying to write creatively and academically, and the exegesis falls very firmly in the second camp.
Recently, though, I find myself looking at the exegesis as a challenge to see how I can combine the creative and academic, to see if I can construct it in such a way that it is still academically robust but ends up being something I would like to read. For me, the best academic writing holds my attention because it uses clear, straightforward language and has something of the writer on the page, something personal.
So it’s with this in mind that I’m approaching this with a renewed commitment to putting a little bit of me in there, because I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it any other way.
I can hardly believe it, but, yes, dear reader, it’s true. I’ve finished the complete first draft of my novel.
As soon as I finished I sent it to my supervisor and made a hard copy for myself. Then I tidied the house, made lunch for my daughter and her friend, cooked dinner for later that evening, cleaned out the kitty litter tray, had a cup of tea and then taught my first music student for the day.
Now that is how to live the creative life, let me tell you.
There will be many more drafts, of course, and no doubt I will read it again soon – after an appropriate amount of time has passed – and feel like using it to line the kitty litter tray, but for now I’m going to enjoy the feeling of having done something I didn’t think I would ever be able to do.
Now I’m waiting to hear what my supervisor has to say. Depending on what that is I may never get up the courage to show it to another living person.
At least the cat will be happy.