Sunday 25 September 2016

Wedding life, love and art into fiction

Writing about marriage meant she had to leave her own, reflects Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh

Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30

Unique voice: Joanna Walsh captures awkward snippets of what it is to be a woman.
Unique voice: Joanna Walsh captures awkward snippets of what it is to be a woman.

It is natural to want to build fences round the things we love, fences that protect them, and that keep them near us.

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Soon after I began writing, I found it impossible to stay within the fences of the marriage I inhabited. I left not because of anything dramatic - violence, an affair - but because I didn't want to be a married person any more.

This sounds silly, but the feeling affected me strongly, and was accompanied by all sorts of symptoms including anxiety dreams that vanished the night we separated, amicably.

The lack of upheaval in our ill-defined dissolution is something people have sometimes found surprising, occasionally even offensive, a flouting of the importance of boundaries which, rather than shattered, eventually merely and imperfectly disintegrated.

They ask me, what's your story and, sometimes, I'm happy to tell it, either from memory or through fiction.

Marriage: so much goes on in the shadow of that tall word that is unspoken, unwritten. I think I must have imagined marriage was more like the words that prompt it: if only marriage were more like saying,"Marry me!"

If only it was more like answering, "Yes!" But, soon after I married, I found my contract wasn't only with another person, it was also with the world, including those parts whose jurisdiction I might have wished to avoid.

My new identity seemed bounded by the opinions of others, and not only those whose opinions I valued. For years I wanted to be reasonable, and I weighed these opinions respectfully 'til I could not shift their heaviness out of me, until I was so weighed down with them that I no longer seemed to be myself. Then I realised that to be is sometimes to disagree, and, when I did, I was surprised how few people thought the worse of me for it.

In the beginning I must have thought marriage was something you build almost from scratch, like those couples in the telly who construct their dream house under the eye of the camera, adapting an ancient structure - a barn, a ruin, a railway station - keeping the original features they choose, making the rest as modern as they like.

I didn't realise that marriage is something you inhabit, built from old stones, designed by ancient peoples whose technology we no longer understand. You can change the wallpaper as much as you like but it's more difficult to move the walls.

Walls are easy to lean on, but sometimes they are inconvenient, even damaging, cutting the householders off from light and air, and from other people they love, for no reason more than tradition.

Inhabiting any structure means you must sometimes ignore the cracks in order to make a life there, but fiction is a space in which it is OK to examine them.

When people choose whether, and how, they inhabit the structure of marriage, they are thinking with their lives. In order that we have a wider choice of ways to live, these limits and possibilities must be examined, written down.

"Despite everything," I wrote of a married couple in one story in Vertigo, "we are good people, who can hardly live in this world that continues almost entirely at our expense."

I have written a book about families (Vertigo, extract below) as well as one about marriage (Hotel), and one about sex (Grow A Pair) in which I have tried to ask questions about how to weigh pleasures against duties, balance self with society, sort real responsibilities from legitimate desires.

And I like to think that these ideas can be carried about in small blocks of paper, passed from person to person (under brown paper wrapping, if you prefer).

Every fence creates a Pale, and area beyond, an 'in' and an 'out', and even the slightest move from convention can be more difficult than it looks.

It can be hard to cross the lines, to speak up, for example, for changes in the divorce law, for gay marriage, for Repeal the 8th, but once something is put into words, it becomes more possible to enact it.

I am no dictator of pleasure's form, I only insist on its importance. I have found that crossing beyond the Pale has its problems, as well as its pleasures.

But it is not enough only to cross between inside and out, it is necessary to explore the possibilities of retelling both states.

We need new narratives, more, and different stories, told from within the cracks in everything we know.

Joanna Walsh is a writer and illustrator from London now living in Oxford. Her writing has appeared in Granta magazine, The Stinging Fly, and has been anthologised in Dalkey Archive Press's Best European Fiction 2015 and Salt's Best British Short Stories 2014 and 2015. Her memoir Hotel was published in 2015. She writes literary and cultural criticism for The Guardian, the New Statesman and created and runs the Twitter hashtag #ReadWomen, heralded by the New York Times as 'a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers'.

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