Essay: Climbing Towards Light

Words OLIVER MOL

1

 

The first time I discovered the work of Julia Cameron I was writing the final chapters of my second book, and the idea that I would ever suffer that mysterious affliction known as writer’s block seemed laughable; despite—and for various reasons—having been unable to write in the past, I dismissed her advice on creativity almost immediately. But I did like her story: that, at 29, after divorcing Martin Scorsese, and a nervous breakdown, she had quit cocaine and alcohol cold turkey. She explained that she couldn’t think or write, and especially I liked that—at her young age—she had rejected the myth of the dysfunctional artist entirely. At the hospital, during her recovery, she was told that for the sake of her abstinence she would need to pray, or at the very least she would need to believe in something larger than herself. After some consideration, she said that if she had to believe in anything it would be creativity, and then she cited that transcendent line by Dylan Thomas: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.’ She explained that she would not produce creativity, but that she would steadfastly act as its conduit—although what I remember most was the excitement in her voice when she cast her mind back to that first sober birthday party. “It was fantastic!” she said, or I think she said now. “I put all my party friends next to my AA friends. The conversation was electric!” In any case, the thought liberated her, and she has remained sober, religiously writing what she calls her morning pages—three pages each morning of free-flowing, unfiltered words—and creating prolifically ever since.

 

Recently, although only for around six weeks, I stopped drinking too. I was preparing to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I needed clarity. I didn’t have time to be hungover; so, I stopped. It wasn’t difficult, and I approached that severance the same way I had quit smoking several months earlier: with a swift and proud finality, as if I were the protagonist in a spy thriller walking away from their old life forever. Beyond the lucidity, and a certain feeling of achievement that I felt whenever I woke and looked at myself with fresh eyes in the mirror, what I did not expect was the boredom—that necessary and crucially overlooked state I can remember furiously trying to escape as a child. “Well, I need to do something with my time!” I can remember saying, comically, almost defensively, to my sister, and instead of going out or feeling hungover, I wrote. But there was something different about the writing, something I hadn’t felt in sometime, something effortless, as if all that energy that would normally diffuse or dull over an evening had been waiting, patiently, finally, to be escorted to the page.

 

Of course, none of this is ground breaking, but to me it felt revelatory—and now I am thinking of the late Denis Johnson, that master of literature, who wrote, at least for me, some of the most profound and depraved and dizzying books of the past fifty years. In 2002, while Janet Steen was the literary editor at Details magazine, they interviewed Johnson who said, “The first thing I stopped doing was heroin, and that was in ’75, ’76, and then it was ’78 when I got off alcohol.” Those familiar with his work, especially his transcendent and damning first novel Angels, and the raw work of Jesus’ Son, will not be surprised by what some used to call his colourful life, but the part of the interview I liked most was when he realised that for ten years, he had hardly been writing at all. “It wasn’t until I got sober that I began to worry, will I be able to write?” Then a short time later, he presented this thrilling line: “…and then I thought it doesn’t really matter if I get sober and don’t write again, because I’m not really writing now.”

 

2

 

This is an essay about creativity, but this is also an essay about failure, about those nights we spend in front of the page failing over and over, trying to make some meaning out of our lives. I remember, during lockdown, the day after finishing my second book, telling my father over breakfast that I had begun work on a novel that never used the letter I. The conversation, and to a certain extent the idea, now seems—due to its brilliant uncommerciality—comical, but at the time I was deadly serious. I told my father the novel was centred around a man who had made a grave and terrible mistake, and that through a series of coincidences or fortunate events he had ended up with a partner who had convinced him to take night classes in creative writing at his local university. The class was taught by a somewhat clichéd and burnt-out professor, although inspired by the rare life and energy in his class he had instructed his students to read two novels that never used the letter E. The first book was called Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, and the second was La Disparition, translated to the English as A Void, by Georges Perec. “Your task,” the professor says in the novel, “is to write a story that omits a single letter of the English language.” A few nights later, our protagonist decides he is going to write his story without the letter I, or rather he will only use the letter twice, once at the beginning, and once at the end. Perhaps, he thinks, by removing all traces of himself he can reinvent himself. Other times, he convinces himself the task is futile, and he tells himself that he will never change again. All the same, each night, he sits down and works on his story, and eventually, after some encouragement from his teacher, he attempts to play: with language, sure, trying to get the words right, but also with memory and sequence and causality, teasing out those final moments before his actions caused the horrible and immense thing that changed his life forever.

 

I loved the idea, and over the following months I wrote many thousands of words, although in the end I abandoned them completely. Even now, it’s confusing—I didn’t know how to tell the story, how to sit behind its wild heartbeat, and while I did find the exercise interesting, pleasurable even, the way omission forced my syntax to change—instead of: ‘he said’, I would write, ‘he repeated’, or ‘he told’; ‘mornings’ and ‘evenings’ were completely erased and replaced, eternally, with ‘afternoons’—I couldn’t get the tone, the larger picture to focus. At a certain point, fed up, I told myself that I didn’t have the courage or the stamina or the—although, clearly, I think, or I tell myself, now, I was burnt out. I had not given myself time to rest, had continued writing so furiously after finishing that previous book that those new ideas had no emotional leg to stand on, and perhaps more importantly: no space to breathe. In any case, the subconscious or the writing part of me was trying to tell me something: to loosen up, to have fun, to adopt the advice the writing teacher gave to the broken student in the story: stop taking everything so damn seriously.

 

At some point, I was fortunate enough to sell my second book, and while I celebrated I can also remember, as the months went by, continuing to struggle with writing, and growing despondent. “Take the pressure off!” my father would say, and although I tried: to listen, to ignore that demonic voice that filled my head with seeming certitudes, in the end I simply tried harder, writing for longer, writing as if I were a toddler, relentlessly attempting to push a triangular toy through a circular hole. Finally, close to breaking point, I called my brother and sister and decided to focus on a different project entirely.

 

3

 

I am aware that this narrative is moving away from alcohol, although, perhaps, at least thematically, that is the point.

 

Sketches from my notebook between December 2020 and June 2021:

 

Sometime around early December 2020, during a brief period when Coronavirus felt like a memory and we were able to travel, I moved to Hobart because I wanted to be closer to my brother and sister and because I wanted to learn how to climb. I had been climbing intermittently for several years by then, mostly indoors, nearly always bouldering, but I wanted to learn how to climb outside. My brother and sister had more than a decade of experience between them, my sister nearly had that alone, and I wanted to be strong like they were strong. I wanted to be strong under pressure and strong in my body and strong and capable and dependable in my mind. 

Besides—I was so sick of writing. I had been working on a story about family and courage and disappointment and bravery for months, and I was so sick of sitting down and being inside and staring at screens and being in my head and playing or trying to play with words. The world had begun to feel so known, so terrifyingly small lately, and what I wanted, needed was a break. I wanted sun and rocks. I wanted wind and waves and rope and nothing between my feet but 50 metres of air. I wanted, I think, now, to come unstuck: writing, or those essayistic worlds populated by memories or the fading memories of memories had, for so long, anchored my life with such purpose that my inability to perform or find pleasure in them left me feeling existentially, profoundly lost, and I wanted to scare the shit out of myself in the hopes that I might trust myself to write again, or if not write then, at the very least, produce within my body those same chemicals that writing had once produced when my pen was gliding across the paper and I could hardly sit still because the world (or the worlds I was creating) felt so connected and full of meaning that—

How do I put this simply? If my fingers could not write, could not support myself mentally or financially or cerebrally, then perhaps they might learn to support me physically. Shortly after I arrived, I joined the climbing gym, and each morning I would climb, then hang from the hang boards before completing push-ups and pull-ups and sit-ups, and on the walk home I would stare at Mt Wellington in the distance, and in the playground next to the rivulet I would hang once more, my whole weight, whole life in those fingers, and during those final 15 seconds I would try desperately to hold on, and I would imagine myself up there on the mountain, way up where no one could hear or see me, hanging by several fingers, shaking, but talking to myself, having such a fierce dialogue with myself that I hoped one day those words might become a story, and I would no longer feel useless or scared or like a failure or alone. 

 

4

 

In early April 2021, I somewhat dramatically renounced literature and travelled to Mount Arapiles in rural Victoria where I planned to climb on—and camp beneath—that staggering piece of rock that rises 140 metres above the Wimmera plains. We spent our days clinging to quartzite, pushing through chimneys, hand-jamming cracks, emerging, ceremoniously, from roofs. Against that brilliant red and orange rock, we spoke to ourselves, reassuring ourselves, and each afternoon I would return exhausted and dust-covered—they were some of the happiest days I have known. One afternoon, driving back from the local swimming pool, after indulging in my first shower in more than a week, something remarkable happened:

 

I remember driving down that long road with nothing on either side but flat lands and clouds and staring and staring at Mt Arapiles in the distance and thinking that if I wanted to write or be a writer I would need to let go of any preconceived notion of what a story might be and just follow each sentence as they arrived and trust that one day those sentences would connect or rearrange to form a whole far greater than its individual parts, and as it began to rain over that wild and improbable mountain I saw a sign that said Goroke was 20 kilometres away, and I shook my head in disbelief because Goroke was that tiny, mythical town in rural Victoria where Gerald Murnane lived. 

 

The previous year, I had tried to get in contact with Gerald Murnane, who many—including myself— consider to be the world’s greatest living English writer. Initially, I had wanted to interview him for a magazine I worked for, and while he had no interest in that, after a series of text messages where I explained, amongst other things, how much his literature meant to me, and that I wanted to talk about what it meant to explore the contents of one’s own mind, he agreed to have me as a guest at his residence on a Friday to be decided. But then, inevitably, due to lockdown, everything fell apart.

 

That afternoon, returning to the campsite, I remember shaking somewhat—with excitement, absolutely, but also with trepidation and fear, as if the universe had peeled back its own skin—as I explained to my fellow climbers who Gerald Murnane was. I tried to tell them about the New Yorker article titled Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? and before I knew it I was telling them about that guesthouse in Bali where I had read for the first time his seminal collection of essays Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, and then about the sequence of words that begins that collection, that I can still recall now:

 

“One of the least useful tasks that a person my years might undertake is to ask how differently he or she should have done this or that in the past. Even so, the author of the second last piece in this book, when he was hardly younger than I am now, chose to ask himself just that question. He answered it by declaring that he should never have tried to write novels or novellas or short stories but should have allowed each piece of his fiction to find its own natural end. The author’s conjecturing is futile, of course, but it has inspired me to make an even bolder declaration. I should have never tried to write fiction or non-fiction or anything in between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays.”

 

It may not sound like much, but to me, then, returning broke and mildly depressed from a mostly unsuccessful writing trip through Europe where I had been trying to make sense of a 10-month migraine that nearly destroyed my life (at that point, I was not even close to finishing, let alone selling my previous book), it was enough to make the whole world disappear. With those words, whether Murnane meant to or not, he had made me realise I could use all those omissions, all those fractured thoughts or half-truths that didn’t seem to belong to any category in the bookshops or libraries to make my story whole.

 

That night, I texted Gerald and said that if he was free, I happened to be in the neighbourhood. Gerald responded that we could meet for an informal 30-minute conversation at the abandoned golf course the following afternoon. The next day we spoke for several hours about literature and life. The conversation moved, and still moves me today, and as we prepared to leave, I asked if he had any advice. “The only story you ever need to read is ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ by Melville,” he said, and then he was gone.

 

On the drive back to Queensland, I stopped briefly at Readings bookstore in Melbourne, and read that story holding my breath. Later, recounting everything to my sister, I told her that although I had loved the story, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have learned. “Isn’t it curious,” she said, or I think she said now, “that the moment you stopped chasing literature, literature found you.”

 

Perhaps, as I begin writing my third book, the point of this essay—and of all those discarded paragraphs, and forgotten words—might be to remember that: to cease chasing; to stop demanding and aggressively attempting to control creativity, but to remain wonderfully, effortlessly, unapologetically and curiously open.

 

I firmly believe that there is magic to be found in this world if only we can invite it in.

 

I have tried living my life by this idea ever since.