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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Like Making Chicken Pie

I made a chicken pie yesterday evening. All this labour of love – simmering the whole bird, deboning and skinning; making the sauce, rolling out the pastry, fashioning decorative leaves. The family loved it, but it took a chunk of time.

I wrote that diary entry on 12 November 2009, about two months into the composition of my third novel, Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, which Kwela will publish in May 2011. I was talking about a real chicken pie, but now it strikes me as an apt enough metaphor for the act of writing a novel. Except that, unlike a novel, chicken pie seldom leads to despair. Reading over the November 2009 diary entries, I was tempted to give this post the title “Sinning against the Holy Ghost” (since despair, one of the six sins against the Paraclete, is the one most often committed by novelists) but the chicken pie title is more comforting.

4 November 2009
I am keen to get back to writing, but I still have nine poetry portfolios to assess. Luckily I’ve seen most of the work before. It is ironic to me that the two humblest students are the best – a shy, awkward boy facing great poverty because of his father’s unemployment, and a pale, freckly girl with braces. … How they blossomed when I praised them. They had friends in the class and yet there was also an apartness about them, a not-completely-belonging. They write only and strictly from the heart, only about what they know and with great wit, imagination and compassion. No butterflies or rainbows. I am fed up to the back teeth with butterflies and rainbows.

The water was lovely this morning – perfect temperature and softly undulating waves. Then, as I got out, a crab grabbed my heel in the shallows. Such cheekiness! Another swimmer said he’d also been pincered – had dived under the water looking for the culprit, wanting to “bite it back”. But crab was too wise.

The swim was particularly good because I felt low blood sugary and low blood pressure after disturbed sleep. I tossed and turned in the night and eventually dreamed that a God-like figure was telling me that G (alive in the dream) had to die. I cried and even remonstrated. It was a relief in a way to “feel” the pain and grief that have eluded me in waking hours.

I’ll have an early night and hope to start early, fresh and untroubled.

5 November 2009
I swam this morning in the rain and drove home shivering with my heater on. By afternoon, the clouds had cleared and the weather was so hot I could not imagine a car heater.

It was a good writing day, with the words flowing easily and the characters standing by, offering themselves to me. I slept well last night. I hope for the same happy rest tonight, though I’ve finished The Anthologist and am moving uneasily through Raymond Carver’s poems, so how will I drop off?

9 November 2009
I won’t swim this morning. It’s still raining, and Friday’s swim was so icy that I am still recovering from my own sheer force of will in going in and staying in.

Yesterday I wrote my novel in the morning (with difficulty) and then corrected the Hamlet proofs in the afternoon. I had supper with PR but didn’t stay late because I had this sudden urge to be alone. I have had terrible moments of despair about my writing and about this book in particular. I feel hemmed in by myself and others, including the household pets. They all insist on cramming in here with me, smelling like old wet school blazers when they come in from the rain, and following my every move in case I am getting up to make their lunch. The old dog misses C, and so rubs her thick fur beneath my hand as I sit here, prompting me to pet her. The cat jumps onto my seat the moment I leave the study, so I am constantly shooing his fat bottom out of the way.

11 November 2009
A gale woke me after midnight and I lay thinking quite calmly, compared to the storm outside, about my novel. This morning I came in here and wrote some words with ease that had been denied me for days. I think my conscious mind is too self-aware of reception (How will the world read this?) whereas my subconscious is only interested in the characters, the message and the design. So I must remember to take little afternoon naps occasionally, and then come straight here afterwards to jot down things.

12 November 2009
I dreamt of G again, that he phoned me. The shock woke me. But at least the gale has subsided, so I only lay there listening to the quiet night – not even a wave break on the reef – till eventually, following novel thoughts and a few admonitions to G, I fell asleep again.

I made a chicken pie yesterday evening. All this labour of love – simmering the whole bird, deboning and skinning; making the sauce, rolling out the pastry, fashioning decorative leaves. The family loved it, but it took a chunk of time.

The Underberg – what would the typical shade tree be for farms in that area? Do the farms there have long approach roads lined with trees?

16 November 2009
A gale is blowing outside – after a week of solid rain, an equally unfriendly wind.

B and I enjoyed Julie and Julia, though I really only felt the Meryl Streep section was worth watching. We came home to make toasted sandwiches and ended up dancing to Golden Oldies in the kitchen.

But on Saturday a most terrible depressive mood came upon me. That’s when I smsed PR to cancel our date to watch a band later. I felt really really sad. I cried on my way to Frail Care. I actually crept into bed in the afternoon. Sleeping helped, and just deciding not to worry about my novel anymore. In the late afternoon, I got up and tidied my study, then watched bad lifestyle TV with B. I don’t know why Saturday was such a crisis for me. I think I’d been multitasking all week and not enjoying it, and feeling trapped by housekeeping and the rain. Then, too, Ma was so crushed and unhappy looking in the morning, all crumpled on her right side as if she’d had a stroke in the night, and completely unable to stand or speak. I had to fight to get a nurse’s attention as usual. We couldn’t get Ma onto the commode – no question of it – so she had her nappy changed on a plastic mat on her bed. But then she was so grateful for the comfortable mattress that she just closed her eyes and slept immediately. I tucked her fluffy green blanket around her. I came home and made spinach pancakes and tuna pancakes for the freezer so that there will be supper when I’m at Wordsworth books on Thursday. But the depression crept up and up until it caught my throat and I gave up on the day. It calmed me to climb right under the bedclothes with a biography of Nancy Mitford.

17 November 2009
It is hot and still here today. An evening for a G&T in the garden. Mmmm. I have returned to my novel. It needs something, but only by spending time with it will I find out what.

20 November 2009
I need a hand injury for a practical man. I need my character to have something like a bent thumb from an old woodworking or handyman injury.

Last night’s reading was pretty dire – a bookshop in a shopping mall, with scant audience. I fluffed, someone’s cell rang while I was reading. Poem after poem all sounding like chatty, chopped up woman-to woman emails. Yuk.

But the good thing is that as I sat there behind my co readers, a renewed sense of my own worth came upon me. The sublime will probably continue to elude me, and there are many jumps I will continue to shy away from, but my feet do not fall easily upon the mawkish or the clichéd. Go home and write, I promised myself.


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