On a (Not Writing) Retreat: Somewhere in Perth Part 4

In the first post of this series I wrote, ‘Part of my plan is to “report”, via Elixir, my progress… to… share what challenged me… how I stayed, or failed to stay, on track…’. I can, this week, share that I’ve haven’t achieved what I set out to do. I have, however, started another utterly unexpected quest. My writing dried up, but I unwittingly began a deeply personal, psychological and spiritual investigation.

‘Retreats’ writes Jules Evans in his recent blog,

are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Alone in the silence, bereft of ideas for my novel, let alone the motivation or inclination to work on it, I devoted myself to writing my Daily Pages. As a result I fell, like an aged and jaded Alice, into a rabbit hole of profound introspection, personal assessment, and discovery.

pexels-photo-268092Evans is right; the time, space and silence integral to a retreat invariably confront participants with the imperfect, often monstrous and usually querulous inner self…the being we hide not only from others but from ourselves. Such a confrontation is no task for the faint hearted.

I won’t go in to the grisly details of my ‘adventure’. I will say I’ve been, at times, angry, anxious, and acutely aware a change in attitude…in my attitude and my perspective… is needed.

Here’s some of what I learned in the last week:

  • The support, in the form of phone calls, text messages and emails, from several women in my life has been astonishing. While none were aware of what I was dealing with, they all contacted me at the exactly right time. I am grateful for their sensitive, generous and compassionate spirits. They each, in their own way, helped me get through the difficult days,
  • Over the last few months I’ve tried to build a regular meditation regime. During my stay in Perth I’ve explored and practiced familiar and new meditation techniques. I read a book and several articles about self-compassion and started reading a book about women in Buddhism. I am, therefore, grateful to the men and women who wrote this material. When Lynette Benton’s Brevity Essay arrived in my in-box late last week I gained a much-needed perspective on why I write, and my hopes and dreams concerning my writing.

During the difficult times I consoled myself by:

  • Listening to women jazz vocalists and exploring classical music (something I neglected in my youth). It’s a marvelous way to soothe and uplift the troubled ‘retreater’,
  • Getting out of the house even to just go shopping. My trip to Perth’s Art Gallery was an enormous boost to my troubled spirit,
  • Writing my ‘Daily Pages’ helped me explore my experience and gave me the means to express it coherently. I returned to journaling, after a long break, late last year and I approach it differently to when I was a young woman. I start each day’s journal entry with ‘what made me happy today?’. This supplies a much-needed perspective, while reading back over happy or pleasurable moments keeps me balanced,
  • Planning and writing blog posts helped me stay mindful and grounded and,
  • Reading the biography of Mary Shelley, and a novel, helped me appreciate different perspectives and allowed me to stop focusing on my problems.

I’ve always wanted to go on a ‘proper’ retreat, one run by an experienced meditation practitioner. Part of me, however, has been afraid of what I might learn about myself. Because the intended focus of this retreat, working on my novel, didn’t work out as planned, my time alone has morphed into a rich, confronting and rewarding discovery of the ‘inner woman’ who dwells in the very heart of my writing.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

accessory balance blur close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Have you ever started one task only for it to become something completely different? What prompted the change and how did it feel?

Have you been on a retreat? Do you agree or disagree with Jules Evans’ comment and why?

Where are all the Angry Women?

I recently heard two separate interviews, recorded at different times and in different locations, with the same woman writer. Both interviews were about her new book and in the second interview her comments were the same or similar to the first.

While there is nothing wrong with this, the second interview gave me a chance to reflect on the writer’s response to both interviews and her comments about how she wrote the book. I discovered I had several problems with what she said. While her book is in some ways shocking and disturbing, it contains only a couple of descriptions of overt violence. I applaud the writer’s decision regarding the depiction of violence. I am sickened by books (or movies) that graphically portray the abuse, torture and maiming of anyone, especially women. In the second interview, however, I detected a sense of squeamishness in the writer when it came to writing about violence and sexual intercourse. Again, the book has a couple of sex scenes, written with assurance and skill but also curiously detached. This may be a good thing; books with too much sex, even pleasurable, loving sex can be boring. After all, as a friend once said to me, how many ways can you write about the mechanics of sexual intercourse that aren’t, well, mechanical?

On the other hand, invasive sexual congress, which occurs when one of the partners (usually, in heterosexual intercourse, the woman) is for whatever reason coerced into having sex, makes me really angry. So does the abuse of women, be it their bodies, their minds, their self-respect or their sovereignty.

Am I reading the wrong books or is no one writing about women’s anger anymore and if not, why not?

I wonder if it is because there exists a clutch of women literary writers, many of them aged between thirty and forty-five, who are a tad fastidious about women’s suffering? Who shy away from the awful reality of most women’s lives? If this is true, if women are too refined to write the truth about woman’s suffering, does this reluctance condone women’s abuse? Does it allow the perpetrators of that abuse to get away with their crimes? Does the absence of anger silence the women who are forced to negotiate, on a daily basis, ways to survive their abuse and their abuser.

I also think too many women writers shy away from so-called ‘feral’ female protagonists. Medusa cover I don’t necessarily think we should all write feminist versions of ‘Lord of the Flies’ but I don’t want to read novels where women are complicit in their abuse even though our conditioning and living situations can mean we willingly accept the status quo.

How long will women remain compliant? In straightened circumstances women eventually behave like any other human: they access their power and they fight back, they openly and proudly assert their rights and express their anger and frustration. It’s also true that women can hurt others, be abusive and violent. To say otherwise repudiates women’s humanity, the first dictate of which is survival by any means.

Many women are angry about how they are treated. Anger, however, is not action. Anger motivates: it can be, when properly and wisely directed, a potent force for change. Women have resisted unequal treatment and fought for equality for centuries and many continue the fight.

Do I want a bunch of novels about angry, violent, abusive women popping up on our bookshelves? Can the current crop of young-to-middle-aged women writers express such anger? How is it possible for many of these women writers, university educated, upper middle class, quasi-radical feminists, to ignore the often horrific daily reality of the majority of women? Are they unable to understand this reality because their university education failed them or is it because they simply don’t want to be sullied by the truth that lies behind the statistics, the truth that sits outside their safe, theoretical books and journals?

Why is this important to me? Apart from having been a feminist for over thirty years (and lamenting the ongoing situation many women continue to endure), I am trying to write a themed collection of stories about angry women. It is hard to write about anger without being confronted by one’s own anger. I am wary of alienating a potential reader with my characters’ anger and I want to avoid being didactic. Nor do I want my characters’ anger to be the action but be the motivation for their behaviour. I know it’s vital to show (not tell) the anger and show (not tell) how my characters face, accept, and use their rage to make the change they wants to make.

Every woman, from birth, must have access to good health care, an education, financial independence, safe and accessible contraception and access to safe child-birth and child care. Every woman has the right to have a career, if they want one. Every woman should feel, at the end of their lives, respected and nurtured. I want to put my characters’ divine and justifiable rage out into the world, to represent anger as a legitimate, reasonable reaction to the intolerable fact that too many women are denied these basic rights.

It’s just that writing about anger can be as taxing as feeling angry.

What do you think? Are you angry? Are you comfortable with expressing your anger? Have you created an angry fictional character? What problems did you confront and how did you solve them? Do you know of any books where angry women characters feature?