Coming to the end of a writing project, I always feel –surprisingly– fretful and anxious rather than celebratory. When I actually feel I’ve finished I can feel quite panicky, and quite often I’ll start something else –sometimes within the hour.
And today –17th January– I knew I’d write the last section of a suite of three ten-section essays I’ve been working on since 16th December –and that I’d have to deal with the panic.
Those ten sections –it takes a bit of explaining. For almost fifty years I’ve loved the Centuries of Meditations of Thomas Traherne –Traherne writing in 1672 a handbook of spiritual instruction for a Mrs Susanna Hopton of Herefordshire. She had given him the gift of an empty book, and the first words of the First Century –it could be the loveliest thank you in the world:
An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders.
There are four complete Centuries, and the profitable wonders cease suddenly some way into the fifth.
Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I when I was a child –Traherne in the Third Century taking us into the radiance of infancy and childhood. I was entertained like an angel with the works of God…
It occurred to me early last year that a book I was writing might come most naturally if I wrote it as a century of meditations –and I was so delighted by the possibilities of the form that everything I write nowadays is a century of meditations –usually ten chapters each of ten sections –each section or meditation averaging about 300 words.
What I love about this form is the easy movement of it –the way each meditation is separate but belongs in a calm and constant flow, an intimate conversation. And above all I love the part whimsy can play.
Walking to the café where each morning I write for three or four hours I was wondering what conclusion I might find for my suite of essays. They’re essays that continue the conversation with music I’ve been having for over fifty years –and each one is a journey of curiosity and delight –the kind of journey that doesn’t think in terms of serious things like conclusions.
For example, I found occasion to recall the indignant reception that had been given to Richard Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica in New York in 1903. The work describes a day in the life of the composer, his wife and their infant son –and there were two features that particularly fueled the indignation –one was the employment of six horns, four trumpets, a yelling army of woodwind plus sixty-two string players to express not the end of the world but the resistance of the infant son to the experience of the bath –and the other was that after the child has finally consented to sleep –there’s a section of very beautiful love music. Parents making love! What will they try to get away with next…
So I wrote with pleasure:
I am delighted –in the Symphonia Domestica– that Strauss gives such exuberant orchestral voice to the formidable determination of the infant human to draw attention to the things of the world that are not fair –in this case the non-negotiable parental insistence on the necessity and virtue of the daily bath –and I am delighted also that he so unblushingly refutes the notion almost universal among children newly conversant with what we used to call the facts of life that lovemaking is an activity of which parents could not possibly have any knowledge.
And of course he knows very well that the formidability of infants and the fact of parental lovemaking are universals –that he is not the only father to have been appalled and amazed by the capacity of his child’s lungs, nor the only father to have realized that in the business of being a parent it’s good to make love when you can –and of course in the music of the Domestica he’s expressing that universality –how it is to be a husband and a parent –but he’s expressing it in the only way it can be expressed without falling into abstraction and moralizing –how it is for him.
My consuming curiosity is how autobiography can be expressed through structure –but today I’m writing about the fact that it’s the 17th January, and on my walk to my café I have the vague feeling that I ought to be doing something about it.
And when Ainsley the barista brings me my first coffee of the day I realize I’m thinking –17th January 1962 was the date we left Australia for six months in England on the Strathnaver.
I was ten –and in the cabin I was filling book after book of music manuscript with sonatas and string quartets –or what in my vast and wonderful dream of music I imagined to be sonatas and string quartets:
There was a pale young man who would sit on deck also writing on manuscript paper. Once he walked past me talking to a friend –he was saying: I had the tune written out in manuscript.
Could there be such beings in the world? This was in fact the composer Nigel Butterley, on his way to London to study with Priaulx Rainier –and I think it was three years later that the first of his compositions to reflect his new experiences –the beautiful chamber composition of European church light, serenity and praise –Laudes– was first performed.
Butterley’s first orchestral composition –Meditations of Thomas Traherne– introduced me to the gentle and luminous writer who has become central to who I am and what I do.
So there I am –writing the final meditation of my three essays on a completely unexpected but perfectly apt theme –and it happened because it’s the 17th January and I’m writing in a form that’s blessedly open to the whimsical connection.
And now –a delightful solution to the problem of panic: Lee gently reminds me I’d promised a guest post. And I’m writing this without the least fretfulness or anxiety.
Peter Bishop was the founding creative director of Varuna, The Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, 1994-2010 and is now working there as a consultant and mentor to writers. Peter’s essays have been published in a variety of publications, including Griffith Review.