Ashleigh Young on why it’s OK – important even – to spend time away from writing.
As is clear on the front cover of Ashleigh Young’s new book Can You Tolerate This?, her essays are undeniably personal, but the strength of the writing within comes from her ability to translate the details of her life into relatable, universal experiences.
In ‘Window Seat’ she exhausts her energy manufacturing surprise and delight at a chatty stranger’s endless stories – a social performance any introvert will recognise. In ‘On Breathing’, she describes biking up the hill to Vic. Uni., “letting the breath out thinly, like a slow leak from a puncture”, hyper-aware of the slimmest of possibilities that an ex-boyfriend passing on the bus will notice her heavy breathing and consider her unfit.
Throughout the rest of the book, the reader is offered fragments of Ashleigh’s family life; of her childhood in small town Te Kuiti, being smuggled underage into gigs in Hamilton by her older brothers and of being taken up into the air by her pilot father. ‘Big Red’ is one of the strongest, and its title character can be seen in the illustration on the front cover, arms aloft and full of air.
Can You Tolerate This? was originally written as part of her Masters in Creative Writing at the IIML at Victoria University, and won the prize for best portfolio that year. Now published seven years later by Victoria University Press where she works as an editor, we caught up with Ashleigh to learn more about what it took to get it published.
The first version of this collection was completed in 2009. How has it developed in that time?
When I wrote a first version, I think I was so excited about the idea of writing about my own life – how was this allowed?! – that I lost the plot a bit. I was writing as if having therapy, in a way, which is one of the risks when writing directly out of your own life. You get heady with the telling, especially if you’re dealing with things you’ve never written about or spoken about before. ‘Telling’ can be quite seductive to a writer. You feel so powerful and you forget that the people you’re writing about at that moment don’t have the privilege that you have, of telling. Some of the things I’d written weren’t ready to be told as ‘a story’ and they were not mine to tell. They were too raw.
In the end it was the best thing to take some time over this book and bring it back to a place where it was OK to tell, and to transform it into something beyond a raw account. So there was a bit of rewriting – and in that rewriting I also talked about my realisation that I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say. And I wrote new pieces that I think pushed the book's territory a bit further.
How did your blog help you to complete this collection? I noticed some of the essays in the book were originally published there.
Well, to be totally frank, quite often I feel a bit crap about my ability as a writer, a feeling which is not uncommon among writers, and I’m slightly embarrassed to say this but the blog really boosted my confidence. When people responded thoughtfully to a post, I’d have this nice moment of feeling like I’d made a connection somehow. Those little connections kept pushing me onwards and helping to smooth some of the anxieties away. Kind of odd that of all of the places to find support and encouragement, I found it on the internet.
The other helpful role of the blog was to remind me that everything you publish is accessible and can affect people. Yes, it is an obvious and quite silly thing to realise. But sometimes you are lulled into a feeling of safe containment when you usually have just a handful of people commenting on your writing. I had one post that was shared by a guy who runs a popular Tumblr called This Isn’t Happiness – which I’d written about critically in my post. It went ballistic (by my standards) and I was worried I’d be pilloried for what I’d said, but somehow I wasn’t, or not much. A few of the pieces I wrote for the blog kind of sparked something for me, and I wanted them to have a more permanent place somewhere.
Everything we tolerate – love, death, pain, everyday irritation and melancholy, and so on – places its own weight on us, and I’m also interested in how that weight shapes us.
How does teaching writing and working as an editor inform your own writing practice?
It informs my practice in that … I have no time to write. (Jokes! Although … I mean, actually I don’t have much time on the whole. But, mysteriously, I still have time to scroll through Twitter and time to pat my cat for longer than is necessary.) Editing and teaching have both made me more aware of my shortcomings as a writer – this isn’t a bad thing; it just means I have more of an awareness of what I need to work on. Teaching, especially – although I find it nerve-wracking, I also find it invigorating. There’s something that happens when you’re giving feedback on others’ work, making suggestions and looking for possibilities and trying to help someone open their writing up – some of that starts to reflect back at you. You remind yourself: I could try this too, and some of your fear of being no good falls away. Also, in a much more trivial way, because I do a lot of work on a screen, the work has also taught me I really need to spend proper time away from screens. I need to sit in bed with a notebook and a pen every night.
You write in a number of different formats and mediums (poetry, essays, Twitter, your blog…). Do you know what form an idea, a scene or a character will take when you sit down to write it? Or do you have phases where you are writing more poetry, or more essays, for example?
It’s completely instinctive as to what form something will take. With poetry it tends to be quite nebulous – I’ll start with a feeling or a mood or an observation. With prose, the idea tends to have more definition as a subject or a question. Like, ‘This postal worker seems interesting, I’ll write about him.’ Or, ‘I wonder why I have such vivid memories of each member of my family being carried away by a horse.’ (I’m still writing that last one.) But of course sometimes those things shift around. There are a few pieces in my new book that came out of a mood rather than a predetermined subject, and I have many poems that began as subjects (like bad taxidermy, or the idea of carrying a gun when going out running). I definitely have phases where I’m writing more poetry than prose and vice versa. I also have fallow times when I write nothing, and I just read. The trick is to learn not to feel guilty about that. I think it’s OK – important even – for every writer to spend some time not writing.
What appeals to you about writing essays currently?
For me it’s always been that, through the essay’s combination of directness and indirectness, I can find a way to face things I find difficult to face.
What are some of your favourite personal essays you have read?
There are so many. Some that I come back to are ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ by Ariel Levy, ‘Silt’ by Robert MacFarlane, ‘Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life’ by Yiyun Li, ‘Letter from Greenwich Village’ by Vivian Gornick (which forms the basis of her book The Odd Woman and the City), ‘Badly written men’ by Giovanni Tiso, ‘Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice’ by Helen Garner.
Some of my favourite essays in your book are about your family. ‘Big Red’ in particular. How hard is it for you to write about your family?
I find my family pretty fascinating (which I guess is a narcissistic thing to say? I’m not sure). The difficulty is not in writing about them, exactly, but in having written about them – and then talking to them about it and asking for their blessing. I’m really lucky: my family has been incredibly good about it. My dad has complained that he ‘comes across like a bit of an old codger’ and my mother says she finds some of it pretty cringey – but their support and enthusiasm has floored me. ‘We’ve both been reading it, and isn’t it wonderful!’ Mum exclaimed recently. (This kind of feels like ‘retweeting praise’ but it’s different when it’s your mum.) My dad tells me he has been inspired to write some ‘yarns’ about his life as a flying accountant. (I’m a little bit apprehensive about this, but am basically pleased.) Both my brothers have been brilliant, too. The other day my sister-in-law sent me a photo of my brother JP reading the book and chortling. That made me really happy.
What was it about the phrase ‘Can you tolerate this?’ that stuck with you after your visit to the chiropractor and made for the best title for this collection?
I liked the care of that question. He could have just gone ahead and done the manipulation without asking. I liked the pause in which I could think about it. (Maybe a personal essay is a small pause between manipulations.) It stuck with me because we all have to bear the things that happen to us and the things we feel, and I’m interested in how we bear them. Everything we tolerate – love, death, pain, everyday irritation and melancholy, and so on – places its own weight on us, and I’m also interested in how that weight shapes us.
I often ask myself if I can really bear it and it always turns out that I can, but coming back to the ‘yes’ is a negotiation with myself. And the answer always starts with ‘Yes, but’. And it’s a choice, isn’t it? We don’t have to keep going. But sometimes stepping back and asking yourself the question can give you some measure of strength.
Can You Tolerate This? is published by Victoria University Press.