A couple of nights ago, home alone while my partner was at band practice, I flopped on the couch and decided to re-read some of the blog posts I’ve written here over the last year.


In some cases, this reflective process was heartwarming. Through the words I’d committed to the page many months before, I could easily piece together how I was feeling at the time, relive the satisfaction of a well-deployed phrase or a tiny epiphany achieved by slowing down to think and to rearrange my thoughts for a while.


But I was also frustrated.


Noticing typos and other verbal contortions, I felt irritated by myself. More than that, I felt a creeping sense of shame. Like any other writer, I benefit from editing. I wouldn't edit the work of other experienced writers if I didn't believe in the irreducible value of a fresh pair of eyes. I’m as guilty as the next person of reading what I intended to say rather than the words right in front of me, especially when I make last-minute changes and neglect to skim the final draft for introduced errors.


If I give myself enough time and distance from a project, I can usually come back to it with my glasses wiped clean and a helpful outsider's perspective. But I’m not a reliable editor of my own work when I’m hurrying, when I’m tired and too busy, trying to pump something out under duress. Noticing those errors filled me retrospectively with the same sense of dread that often accompanies, and undermines, my genuine hankering to write.


I want things to be different.


* * *


It’s funny how incidental conversations often crystallise complex ideas and feelings.


One of my thesis supervisors used to call for ‘tape-recorder time’ whenever I was stuck in some kind of research or writerly rut.


‘Come have a chat in my office,’ she’d say. And as I fumbled my way through a halting back-and-forth about how I was tangled and where to go next, she was always inevitably right: the breakthrough would come. Sometimes a mere sentence or seemingly trivial comment would send me off in a new, and viable, direction.


On the same day as I scrolled through ladyberg’s archive, I met a friend for bubble tea in West End.


We discussed, as women often do, the persistent feelings of inadequacy that plague our desire to pursue creative projects and meaningful work — how frightening it feels for any kind of creator to generate a backlog of work about which they may not always feel proud. Showing our work means leaving behind a series of artefacts: evidence of our growth that can be just as disheartening as it is triumphant, depending on your predisposition or perspective.


Our conversation reminded me of this essay by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, published recently on Kill Your Darlings, about the fetishisation of the wunderkind and our preoccupation with 'youthful literary achievement'. Laura writes about the debut manuscript she wishes she’d left in a drawer and the pressure to succeed as a marketable commodity as much as a wordsmith in the contemporary publishing scene.


The thing is, if you keep at anything for long enough, you tend to get better — not just at the thing itself but the things surrounding the thing. Writing isn’t just about spackling words like plaster onto a blank wall. Writing is thinking. Writing is researching. It’s storytelling. It requires time, energy, courage, compassion, determination, the risk of failure, exposure, censure. These days, it also seems to demand certain types of public performance. But what happens to the archive that fossilises in your wake, that becomes the arc or path of your journey but not the end point? Should it stand for posterity’s sake? Does it retain its value even when outgrown or overshadowed by more competent examples of your work? What happens to the chrysalis as we emerge and re-emerge so many times anew? Is all our effort merely practice?


* * *


For much of my adult life, I’ve tended one blog or another.


At 37 years old, I’ve heard I’m part of the last generation who can remember life before the internet but who can otherwise call themselves a digital native.


Manually coded blogs were part of the original online ecology I grew accustomed to in my late teens and early 20s, and I modelled my first blog — Cosmic Revelations of a Checkout Chick (or CROCC for short) — after another favourite, The Babelicious Sonatas, written by Rachel Kendrick (a then-Canberra-based friend of a friend of my brother, I believe).


By the time I started university in 2004, blogging platforms and tools were popping up all over the place, including Livejournal and Blogger, followed quickly by more sophisticated content management systems such as Typepad and Wordpress. I’m pretty sure I had accounts for each, at various times, throughout my undergraduate degree and the first year or so of working full time in my mid-20s. In fact, an intermittently updated Wordpress blog called Wabi landed me in hot water when I was unfairly dismissed from my job at a start-up healthcare company (a long story for another, or no other, time): after forcing me to resign because I was applying for other jobs, my former employers embarked on a digital witch hunt and threatened me with a defamation suit because I’d written once or twice about feeling unhappy in my professional life — even though I'd used an alias and had an audience of maybe half a dozen friends. (tl;dr: Despite those threats of legal action, my own lawyer advised me to do nothing because the case was exceptionally flimsy, and his guidance proved sound. The situation fizzled out completely following that terrifying initial letter, though I did experience a nervous collapse in the process.)


My longest-running blog was a site called One Good Thing, the layout and design of which I learnt to code myself by taking a web design elective as part of my master’s degree, which I finished in 2011. One Good Thing carried me through those post-breakdown years, during which I was still quite a mess but nonetheless a hopeful kind of mess who was casting around for creative outlets and practical alternatives to the typical nine-to-five grind. That blog was a security blanket of sorts, offering me a safe, cosy space to write about all my favourite things: food, fashion, books, fuzzy animals, mindful living, getting through the day as a wobbly 20-something-year-old.


I stopped writing One Good Thing about halfway through 2013, the year I spent in and out of hospital, undergoing ECT as a last-ditch attempt to ameliorate a particularly deep, dark stretch of suicidal depression. It wasn’t an experience I wanted to document, and the strain of pretending that everything was fine online while my real life felt so empty and bleak seemed untenable.


Once I enrolled in a PhD program the following year, I likewise decided that I didn’t want any new colleagues, friends, or students (and especially my research participants) to have access to that version of me (or ‘me’), so I pulled the archived blog offline and didn’t think about blogging again until after I’d submitted my thesis and had my degree conferred.


Midway through 2018, when I was teaching full time on a contractual basis, I briefly launched a multi-authored blog called Bewilderbeast, featuring stories about the experience of completing a higher degree by research (HDR) from the perspective of former and current students. I loved The Thesis Whisperer but felt there was room for another blog featuring more personal, introspective narratives.


At the time, my own experience of HDR study was raw, and I was still fully immersed in that environment, surrounded by other L-plater academics who were finishing their degrees or still recovering. Had I remained in academia, I might have continued cultivating and editing that blog. But I didn’t get an ongoing job, and by the time I tearfully packed up my office and planned to transition into the public service, the thought of dwelling so much on what’s typically a gruelling process for so many students suddenly lost its lustre. I couldn’t think of anything worse than remaining suspended in that space and time.


And so it died a natural death.


* * *


The compulsion to blog — to maintain some kind of public online journal — is perhaps an odd one. Writers write, of course, by their very definition. But writing in a more private way has never appealed to me half as much as pressing ‘submit’ on a drafted blog entry and releasing it into the wild, whether one person, or a thousand, ends up reading it.


Back in the day, a fresh, as-yet-unpopulated Wordpress site featured the words ‘Hello world’ as dummy text in the template (maybe it still does). It’s a plucky, if naïve, phrase: I doubt that anybody who launches a blog at this point in the game, when the web is already saturated by content creators, believes their little online space represents a genuine gateway to the world, or vice versa. But the promise is always there. Maintaining a blog is one small way of articulating that your ideas are worth sharing — with someone, anyone.


The curious appeal of a writerly blog, I believe, is in its natural capacity for ‘extimacy’, a Lacanian concept that captures, at its simplest, the ways in which we render what’s usually intimate and internalised as Other or externalised. I like the way that blogging allows me to contemplate myself at a distance. Writing to or for an imagined audience holds me accountable to thinking more slowly and carefully, to favour discourse and dialogue over diatribe, to be the more courageous and authentic version of myself that often dissolves into duty, obligation, and social awkwardness. Blogging has always represented a dynamic space in which to play and learn new skills, to accumulate a set of field notes as I grapple with life’s hard questions, from ‘What should I wear today?’ and ‘What is the best brand of oat milk?’ to things like ‘Is there an ethics of writing about the body?’, ‘Should we be concerned about the rise of the author-influencer?’, and ‘Is body modification motivated by conventional beauty standards compatible with the principles of feminism?’


When I started this blog, I think I had something else in mind, something different from how the site and my writing behaviours have actually played out, and it’s taken me a whole year of planning, experimenting, and reflecting to sift through these feelings and decide how to budget the energy I invest in writing of any kind.


In my earlier attempts to maintain a regular blogging schedule, I always had more time and attention up my sleeve to devote to the task. I studied and worked part time. I had broken up with my boyfriend. I lived with my parents. So, writing a post a day was something I could manage in an enjoyable, leisurely sort of way. Even if I spent most of the day writing one short essay or pulling together a simple graphic, it was time well spent. And time I had.


Ten years ago, amateur blogging was also still pervasive, and I didn’t feel as self-conscious about the reality that I cannot take good photographs or perform more than a handful of tricks in Photoshop. In some ways, I was also less self-conscious about myself. I was content in being a ‘basic bitch’: pinning outfit combinations onto Pinterest boards, listening to Coldplay in my car while driving to my grandma’s, mastering sponge cake as a personal challenge. And despite learning some lessons about self-expression and confidentiality the hard way, I hadn’t yet determined what I could or should share online, and how. I didn’t care who read my blog or why they did so — the more the merrier, right?


Over the past year, I’ve spent many, many hours agonising about how to squeeze this blog not only into my daily life as such but also into my professional goals as a writer and an editor. Falling seriously ill over six months ago was never part of the plan, but it’s meant that I’ve had plenty of time to think, and during the last several weeks, I’ve experienced a series of small but interrelated epiphanies.


The first is that devoting so many hours to writing long-form blog entries is unrealistic given my current situation, whether in sickness or in health, and that it takes away from the time I could be spending developing well-researched, polished pieces to submit elsewhere. Once upon a time, I was quite happy to self-publish huge reams of ‘content’, whether I crafted it over a couple of hours or a couple of months. I thought that was the best or most I could aim for. As I edge towards my 40s, however, I’m finally cognisant of some of the ways in which class, gender, and disability have intersected in my life to not only generate a narrative of inadequacy but also to obscure opportunity. I simply didn’t know before now that professional ambition and some form of authorial success was available to me. It had never clicked that publication might be a realistic, achievable goal for a writer like me — a working-class kid and the first in my family to graduate from uni — who labours really fucking hard to learn and grow in my craft.


Spending time away from my full-time job this year has prompted me to consider how so much of what I do is for the personal and professional benefit of others. A significant part of my day job is spent ghost-writing for superiors who barely know me; as a university educator and an academic editor, I help assure the success of students and colleagues as they themselves write and edit for publication.


I suppose I feel that it is my turn — that I’ve earnt the right — to hope and dream and have a go. Often I feel I’m already too old (I’m well past the ‘breakthrough young author’ phase), but I try to imagine what I’d say to a friend or co-worker experiencing similar doubts, and it would go something like this: ‘It’s always the right time to do what you love. You are allowed to take up space.’


By the same token, though, writing for and about myself has never been my main or only goal, and over the last eight years, since I first embarked on HDR study, the way I think through questions/problems, pull content together, and draft it into continuous prose has definitely changed. As a qualitative researcher and an editor, I’m drawn to other people’s stories as much my own, and my desire to blog has always been at least partially grounded in a visceral need to connect. When I started ladyberg, it was born out of a need to fill a space in my life in which women’s friendships had grown thin and brittle throughout my 30s. I actually had a community in mind; I was seeking connection and engagement with other thinkers and creators — other women folk, especially — who were muddling through the wastelands of millennial life.


I no longer feel that ladyberg, or any traditional blog, is the right space for either of these pursuits: as a space to publish my regular personal writing or for curating content from other creators. I dislike the platform I’m using (sorry, Wix), and I suspect that engagement on blogs themselves is simply less robust these days, unless an author has been at it for a long time and built a significant 'OG' following.


Among all the other uncertainties and losses I’ve been grappling with this year, knowing that I must — but not understanding how to — let go of some dreams and projects has kept me awake on many a night. There is only one of me, currently a rather diminished iteration of myself, yet I nonetheless find myself wanting to do all the things. There’s my idea for a novel, my dream for a textbook. There’s the text document on my desktop where I list potential topics for personal essays, ideas that challenge and haunt me. There’s my unappeasable compulsion to blog and to work on a fully self-directed creative project, but my conflicting desire to write for publication elsewhere. There’s a yearning to express myself fully and authentically, but at the same time, a genuine need to connect and belong to a community of others, to create a space in which their voices can also be heard. There’s my very real, imperfect self, of whom I am learning to be less afraid and ashamed. But there’s also an aspirational self who needs room to grow, who wants to use her writing as a way of exploring a richer and more sustainable life.


So, with these conclusions in mind, I’ve decided to retire ladyberg in this format, at least for now, and to use my Instagram account instead as a place in which I can publish micro-entries (Instagram has a limit of 2,200 characters per post, which totals approximately 400 words).


Working on a variety of drafts this year has helped me to understand that I enjoy writing in little bits and pieces, stitching vignettes together into something that ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. When I step outside of the corporate/academic mode and allow myself to free-write in a more narrative style, I love the way in which a piece of ‘flash’ non-fiction (is there such a thing?) can contain entire worlds. Sometimes I don’t even feel like stringing words together into sentences or paragraphs; I'd prefer to simply ask an open question or to share a poem, film, or recipe I’ve enjoyed.


There are some other reasons I’ve made this decision, too.


I want my writing to feel more like an ongoing conversation, and I suspect that readers or followers are more likely to spontaneously engage when they don’t have to work too hard to navigate to another site, digest a sizeable essay, and sign into an account or enter personal information to comment. Writing regularly but keeping it brief will force me to get creative, and just as importantly, it will free up some time and energy to focus on longer-form writing for publication (the sort of writing that should involve hours of research, multiple drafts, and a more deliberate editorial process).


I’m hoping that I’ll feel more confident about my work — my personal archive of experimentation and growth — when I can allocate my energy more sensibly and take that extra time to incubate shorter and longer pieces. I can see how my writing suffers when I’m rushing (rushing is the real enemy of the good, yes?). By writing shorter and smarter, I can more readily weed out pesky typos and other residual bugs — the imperfections that plague me to the extent that I want to tear everything down and merely crawl under the bedcovers, never to express myself again. (Here’s an idea for a future essay: how the expectations of flawlessness associated with editing as a career can trigger a particularly malignant and paralysing form of perfectionism.)


Micro-blogging will hopefully also allow me the cognitive/creative bandwidth to cultivate another online space in which I can publish work by other authors and creators. For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of launching some kind of online litmag in which I not only feature the writing and art of other womxn, especially more mature womxn in their 30s and 40s (and beyond), but also profile them to find out more about their creative processes and inner lives. I know so many women in the same boat I find myself, having parked their ambitions or postponed their own opportunities to do other all-consuming stuff — study, teach, edit, recover from illness, raise families, support a partner or parent, earn a liveable income, try different professions, work up enough courage to try, and so on — until they feel it’s now too late to start. (It’s not! Let’s make something together.)


I’ve had a concept like this floating around in my head since before I started my dissertation. My fallback idea in those days was to feature businesswomen and creators from my hometown to boost the profile of a regional city and showcase women actively working to cultivate a vibrant arts scene and professional realm, an idea or plan that’s mutated somewhat over time. It won’t be something I can do alone, but I just can’t shake the idea. I know that this kind of inexplicable passion can sustain big projects.


Maybe it seems silly to fret over what’s currently still just a hobby, or a daydream, but the same could be said of any creative pursuit: people play violin in the garage long before they play as part of an orchestra, they do watercolours on the weekend or late at night before they develop a personal style and showcase or sell their work, they take goofy photographs of their kids well before they shoot a professional wedding.


It’s always the right time to do what you love. You are allowed to take up space.


If you’ve paused to read this lumpy-bumpy little blog over the last year, thank you so much! It’s always a relief to know you’re not merely shouting into the void. I’m thrilled every time someone leaves a comment, and I feel even more exhilarated if I know that at least some of the words have made sense or made a difference — despite the many flaws that still generously pepper my work.


I’ll leave this site up until next year, I think, but I’ve already got some ideas about an Instagram format — both visual and verbal — that might work for me. I will probably end up recycling or revamping some content in the meantime to explore what’s possible.


The blog is dead; long live the blog!

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'I was wild and tame and pulled into shreds and crushed into being all at once.' — Maggie Stiefvater

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Once I would have dreamt about having all this time to myself at home — time, I no doubt would have assumed, to dream, to write, to create, to grow, to rest.


But time marked by mysterious illness is somehow different: the days feel stiflingly long and empty, yet somehow dizzyingly accelerated. Where did the week go? The month? The year?


People ask me how I pass the time, and I never know how to answer. What I want to say is that I either sleep a lot, or I worry a lot. What I end up saying is something along the lines of: 'I've watched four seasons of The Secret Life of Us on Netflix. Sometimes I spend hours thumbing through questionable content on TikTok.'


As the final months of 2021 gradually fold into one another and the shops begin to fill with mince pies and candy canes, I can't help but think about everything I should be doing. My desktop is a semi-organised chaos of half-finished stories and articles, partially edited documents, lists of quotes and fragmented notes, things I’ve started reading and long since forgotten.


Everything around me feels unfinished and uncertain, too: the stacks of unread books beside my bed; the vases of get-well-soon flowers on dressing and dining tables that I’ve stripped of rotten blooms, leaving only the hardy eucalyptus stalks to desiccate and drop; the jar of lollies on our bookshelf with some Minties and fruity chews left over from teaching in first semester; the frozen bananas in the freezer waiting to be blended into the healthy smoothie that never gets made; the unlaced walking shoes in the rack by the front door; heaps of unfolded washing on the spare bed and reusable masks pinned to the indoor drying rack; an abandoned craft project, piled on the bookshelf to prevent interference from the cats; the verandah covered in yet-to-be swept leaves scattered by a recent thunderstorm; a notebook flipped open to a small to-do list populated by simple, achievable tasks printed in red biro, the only working pen from the drawer: MAKE MUESLI, CLEAN ONE SHELF OF CUPBOARD, EMAIL CASE MANAGER.


Sometimes I'm lucky to cross one thing off.


***


The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin noun ‘limen’, for ‘threshold’. To exist in a liminal stage or state is to be on the boundary of transition — neither here nor there, before or after, but in the space between.


I don’t know who I am anymore, I sometimes think, this woman who has tumbled down the rabbit hole of her own body, someone at the indistinct boundary of illness and wellness, someone who cannot look forwards or backwards with any great certainty, who remains unsure how to reflect and understand or to dream and hope and plan when so many questions remain unanswered and reality seems more baffling and out of focus than ever.


'Who am I without my corporate clothes and fancy cappuccinos, my name on an office desk or door?' I often wonder. Who am I, stripped to a floral hospital gown, a nurse's hands in my lathered hair, my brain deconstructed as a series of shapes and patterns on an x-ray film? Who am I during these long, unseen hours spent fretting, sleeping, crying, pottering about the house, flicking through old cookbooks and family photographs?


She is a half-made-half-undone person, this Amber, neither the woman who smiles convincingly for Instagram photos on special occasions, who murmurs over coffee and looks remarkably fine, nor the next-day slump of a figure curled up in bed, barely hopeful enough to be able to shower or eat. She is somewhere in between — somewhere along a rickety continuum, a face in the mirror that’s fogged from the inside out.


***


Perhaps any type of certainty is actually just an illusion. There's that joke about death and taxes. For everything else, maybe we're always caught between worlds: the known and the unknown, the expected and the unexpected, the real and the unreal.


Mysterious illness has a way of white-anting the walls between them. On any given day, I feel optimistic, terrified, grateful, confused, ashamed, blessed, bewildered, resolute, bitter, bereft.


It's a lurching carousel I board and dismount day after day after day, now so familiar yet always so strange.


'How can this be?' I ask myself over and over.


On the worst days, I think I'm dying; on the best days, I think I'm merely losing my mind.


How can this be?


I beg my body to give up its secret.


***


In one of her essays on illness, Virginia Woolf talks about the sickened body as a pane of smudged glass through which the mind is forced to interact with the world. The experiences of the mind cannot be neatly severed from those of the body, as literature sometimes assumes. ‘All day, all night the body intervenes,’ she reminds us. And it is these interventions, ‘when the lights of health go down’, we must often navigate on our own: ‘Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone.’


But loneliness — or aloneness, at least — is not something to be feared, reviled, or eliminated. ‘Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood,’ Woolf contends, ‘would be intolerable.’ In illness, the fallacy of shared experience and belonging falls away. Yes, we may go alone. Illness may render us lonely. But with the peculiar aloneness of bodily affliction or failure comes a sort of clarity, a liberation from the bonds of presumptuous empathy: to be known, to be understood, by another sometimes only diminishes. (This is the Virginia Woolf who described 'the eyes of others' as 'our prisons' and 'their thoughts our cages', after all.)


Sometimes we have to allow ourselves the freedom of remaining misunderstood.


***


'All life is suffering,' a friend tells me over an iced chai latté. 'We're not meant to be comfortable all the time. Self-knowledge is a myth. You have to let go.'


In that gently fleeting moment, I believe her. I'm comforted by the delicate skin that crinkles around her pale blue eyes when she smiles, the ease and kindness with which she says 'Fuck that!' when I confess I'm sick with worry about missing work, all the things I'm not doing, the people I'm letting down,


But still I dwell on the certainty and knowing that eludes me. I search for syllables to describe the puzzling symptoms, bend and stretch the words in directions a doctor might understand. I try on diagnoses for size. Nothing fits. I go over the timeline in my mind. Nothing makes sense. I wonder whether I should quit gluten, walk around the block every day, drink more water, take less Panadol. I feel it is all my fault, and the shame as much as anything else threatens to overwhelm me.


Should should should. Shouldn't shouldn't shouldn't.


I try to meditate on Rilke, who once wrote to his friend: 'Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue... Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.'


I think of Rumi, too, who writes: 'Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.'


I don't yet know how to lead my soul to that grassy field.


So, instead, I paint my toenails badly. I eat Nutella out of the jar. I float in my cousin's pool on a foam noodle, labelling clouds as they slough across the sky: cirrus, stratus, cumulus. I bake biscuits. I water the Zanzibar gem, delight in all the new green shoots on the geranium dad struck for me, wonder why the peperomia on our balcony is yellowing in the warm spring air. I inhale the heavy damp of a late-afternoon storm, comfort the cat who's crouched beneath the couch, scared of the rumbling thunder and sudden pelt of rain. I send an email. I wear slippers to the shops and pull hair off my clothing as I wait in line for the self-serve checkouts. Sometimes I let myself cry for five minutes. I try to live — or live with — the questions.


These are the only things I know to do.

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