I had a thought that I might revisit (well, rehash), every week or so, a column from my old(ish) Canvas column. This one is from October last year. I had just been to a writers' festival. Looking back on some of these columns, I realise I wrote about writers' festivals quite a lot, mostly to complain that I was bad at talking to other writers. But this one was a bit different.
On finding yourself in places
A dog has a special kind of run when it’s about to get you. Its head and torso barely move but its legs are like four little tornados tearing up the earth. I was thinking about that as a dog streaked towards me. The owner, in shorts and jandals, was weed-whacking nonchalantly in the backyard. The dog looked aggrieved as it ran, like a parent rushing towards a child about to break something. Probably it wasn’t used to seeing people walk past its house, because sensible people drove. I froze and said, ‘Hello!’ to the dog, because I only have one way of talking to dogs, and it is to greet them over and over. Maybe I, too, would attack a person if they kept saying ‘Hello!’ to me over and over. The dog bared its teeth as I greeted it again, and I thought, Why am I in this situation.
I asked myself the question again a few moments later when I was walking along the edge of a busy highway. I was going to a small literary festival in Mapua. I’d decided to do a Will Self – the novelist who walks everywhere, including, once, from Kennedy Airport into Manhattan – and walk the few kilometres into town from where I was staying in the countryside. My walk had felt good for a while. I felt carefree, with the steady pace of the old millennial. But then, as traffic rushed past at 100 km/h and I broke into a sweat on the narrow roadside, I started to wonder what I was doing. A car pulled over and the writer Paula Morris stuck her head out the window. ‘Ashleigh . . . what are you doing?’
A few hours later I was on stage at the festival. I tried to ‘be present in the moment’, but each question seemed to widen into an impenetrable forest. The chairperson was saying, ‘It seems to me that when animals appear in your writing, they provide points of certainty around which the more tentative elements of the piece can move about without getting lost – elements about human uncertainty, perhaps. Where do you locate yourself in relation to the animals in your writing? How about your relationships with animals in real life? What do they provide that your relationships with humans cannot? Is there a special reason for including so many animals in your writing?’ It was a good question; it was a terrible question. I said, ‘Yes.’ In these situations I am suggestible, blowing this way and that like the plastic bag in American Beauty. I hoped I would come up with something to say next. Surely, in the future, in three seconds’ time, I would be better equipped.
Many things seem like an okay idea at the time, so you say yes. Yes! You will do it! It feels so good, so hopeful, to say it. The self who will have to deal with the fall-out of your decision is always a smarter and braver self than your current one. ‘She’ll think of something,’ you say. It’s not just a matter of failing to think things through properly, although there’s plenty of that; it’s a reckless faith that you’ll figure it out when you get further along, disregarding all the times when you just became more panicked and uncertain. I think the only reason I do anything is because at some point I tricked myself into it – persuaded myself that in the future I wouldn’t be scared; in the future I would have things to say; in the future the answer would be obvious. Jobs, speeches, university, relationships, going to a party – all have been subject to this self-trickery. It’s a soothing delusion that the passing of time is the same thing as readying oneself, the same thing as learning.
I do most of my learning in short, sharp bursts – in the moments of panic, when the thing I decided to do is happening and the situation is disintegrating. In those moments, I finally locate myself. There I am, still hoping for the best.
The dog sprinted towards me with its teeth bared. I thought, like some sort of climate change denier, ‘Things will work out, in the future, when the dog attacks me.’ And I was lucky, and they did. The weed-whacking man whistled, and the dog retreated. And then the car full of writers rescued me. And I got through the interview, and now that it is in the past I can say that it probably went okay, and I can say yes to something else that I am already, brainlessly, imagining I will be well prepared for in the future. Maybe averting disaster is sometimes just a combination of luck, other people’s kindness, and standing still instead of running away.