When I was eighteen, I joined a troupe of amateur actors. My first (and only) performance was a pastorela, a play representing the birth of Jesus. I played the role of the angel who guided Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and accompanied them during their first days as parents. We rehearsed for a month. I didn’t have many lines but needed to position myself at the centre of the stage with my arms spread wide, showing off my shimmering wings. The lighting technicians would illuminate the wings, casting golden light on the nativity scene.
The whole troupe helped craft those wings, which were heavy, but soft and exquisite – I will never again wear something made with so much love. On the day of the performance, I was so nervous that I missed my mark, even though the director had stuck yellow tape on that very spot. Instead, I ended up right behind Mary. To my horror, the audience burst out laughing when it appeared that the holy mother was growing big shiny wings. I had turned the pious scene into laugh-out-loud slapstick.
After the performance, Maestro Héctor Azar, the pastorela’s author (and one of Latin America’s most celebrated playwrights and directors) congratulated us. I remember blushing when he approached me, fearing a reprimand, but instead he smiled and said something that has stuck with me: ‘Nunca olvides la energía y nerviosismo de tus primeras obras de teatro. Cuando no sientas mariposas en el estómago antes de salir al escenario, retírate o reinvéntate’. (Never forget the energy and nervousness you experience during your first plays. When you stop feeling butterflies in your stomach before going on stage, retire or reinvent yourself).
Re-invent yourself. Re-emerge. Become.
Recently, I have been thinking about what Maestro Azar told me over twenty years ago. Although I never graced a stage again, I wrote a children’s play. I also penned poems and short stories, and eventually started getting paid to write for glossy magazines. The butterflies used to flutter when the blank page stared at me, defiant; and when people asked what I did for a living and I proudly replied ‘I’m a writer’. And at the time, becoming a writer, being a writer, felt organic almost linear, until I lost my voice and confidence and had two options – to become something else or to try to re-invent myself as a wordsmith.
I’ve always thought that emerging, the process of becoming a writer, is a time of experimentation, of reading in wonder and then trying to tone down your influences, of finding a village. It’s when you grow a thick skin to survive rejections. It’s when the power of good stories makes you humble because you don’t know if you’ll ever produce something that will keep someone awake at night, thinking, caring about your characters. (Angela Carter can do it, but can I?) It’s a time of self-doubt because you don’t know if you’ll ever produce a piece of writing that someone other than your family and friends will read and esteem.
Re-emerging, however, is a different beast. Chances are that the attempt to re-emerge comes after trauma, moving to a new country, or family or financial problems. Perhaps it comes after a very successful book – or the exact opposite – or after a much-needed mental break. Rather than fairy-tale creatures, the butterflies then become the words that escape and are near impossible to catch.
In 1992, in an interview with ‘The New York Times’, Haruki Murakami said: ‘If you want to talk about something new, you have to make up a new kind of language.’ And the Japanese author is right: re-emerging, in a way, is making up a new type of language, one that morphs and adapts to your circumstances; a language that speaks your new truth, voice and writing style. And finding that new truth and writing style is what re-emerging is all about.
After moving to Australia and becoming a mother, writing became almost foreign to me. I could sometimes approach the blank page with the detached coldness of a surgeon, positioning subjects, verbs and clauses with precision, but the proverbial butterfly feeling, the creative surge wasn’t there.
A mix of fear and betrayal pervaded my work: fear of failing to write in a new language and betraying Spanish, the language that had seen me become a writer. Writing became confusing and frustrating, and I often wondered if I would be able to call myself a writer again.
I read work by other bilingual and multilingual writers in my quest to re-emerge with an authentic voice. Joseph Conrad, Eva Hoffman, Vladimir Nabokov, Susana Chavez-Silverman, Kader Abdolah and Ariel Dorfman, became my companions. I also discovered David Malouf, Shaun Taun, Gail Jones and many other Australian writers who taught me about my new circumstances and opened new pathways to experimentation. Little by little, these writers helped me find a new way beyond the translation of one language into another, and towards a new and (hopefully) improved literary style.
Every time I sat down to write, the fear of failure was waiting for me, but, in time, it taught me to experiment, even allowed me to try new genres. I am now comfortable in my bilingual skin and love experimenting with the palette my second language offers. I no longer feel I am betraying Spanish, but fear is still there most of the time and I’m not sure it will ever go away, if it should go away.
Whereas emerging taught me to reach out for help and that rejection is part of the writing process, re-emerging taught me how to shape language in ways I never thought I would explore. It also taught me to embrace fear.
Reinvention is fundamental to being a writer but it’s the fear of not being able to pen a story again that sometimes feeds the creative surge.
Fear challenges you, makes you question your choices and helps you do better, read better, write better.
When American poet Nicole Cooley joined a conversation about emerging writers with Bookslut’s Anna Leahy in 2009, she expressed mixed feelings about the term ‘emerging’ because, as she said, ‘with each book – my first and second and the one I’m finishing now – it always feels like I’m starting over as a writer. Re-emerging each time, perhaps?’ And perhaps Cooley is right, just like Maestro Azar twenty years ago.
It doesn’t matter if you are indeed an emerging writer, or a mid-career writer or an established one, it doesn’t even matter if you are trying to re-establish your career after a hiatus or if you had to stop writing because of an unexpected event. Every essay, short story, poem, novel we write will make us question who we are as writers and why we do it. Each project will force us to re-emerge because they each require something different from us. Each piece of work will make us reach out for inspiration, for our village, until we stop the self-doubt, and the fluttering lets us know that it’s time to sit down and write again – or to stop, re-emerge and reinvent oneself.
Perhaps the key lies not in being a writer but in experiencing a constant state of flux, of becoming, which is how French philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes the postmodern condition.
About Gabriella Muñoz
Gabriella Muñoz is a Mexican-Australian writer and editor. She has published feature articles and essays on a wide variety of topics. Her literary work focuses on motherhood, exile and the mysteries of blood and origin. Gabriella is the inaugural recipient of the Writers Victoria Digital Writers in Residence program, supported by the Loula Rodopoulos Sub-fund of the Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust.