Tags: skiing


The confidence trick: skiing and writing

So, I'm most of the way up a French mountain, watching the cloud come down and the wind make waves in the snow, and I'm thinking about confidence and courage and technique. We're here, the marquis and me, to ski, but I am not skiing: I'm here in the hotel room with my tablet while the marquis skis out there in the wind and cloud.

Because for me, skiing is all about confidence and courage and, yes, technique. I'm an okay skier. I'll never be good: I started too late and I don't ski regularly enough and I don't have the confidence and only sometimes the courage. The marquis, who *is* a good skier, says I have the technique to cope with most of the conditions I might meet. Several ski instructors have said the same. But the thing is, I don't believe them. I've skied steep runs and icy ones, moguls and unpisted runs; in mist and thick cloud, in strong winds and in snowstorms, in flat light and, once, in almost no light at all. I've skied narrow tracks which are full of people. I've found myself alone on steeps and bumps and coped because I had to.

None of that killed me. None of that left me with anything worse than bruising (so far, touch wood). In that sense, I suppose the marquis is right: I have the technique I need. But the thing is, you see, I don't do any of these things perfectly -- and if I'm not perfect, then my head knmows for certain sure that I am not good enough, insufficient, wrong and not allowed.

And then there's other people. Ski runs are full of other people. The rule of the piste is that you look out for and ski to avoid worrying, inconveniencing or harming those who are downslope of you. Those who are upslope are not your responsibility. But I can't make myself believe that. I have to be the perfect skier to avoid inconveniencing anybody, up- or downslope. I have to be neat. I have to ski well enough so as not to cause the marquis to be ashamed of me and not to look too stupid in front of others. I have to be perfect in order to avoid causing harm, or doing wrong. And in my head, any failure of perfection is a potential wrong.

Writing is the same. In my head, always, there is a perfect book, the book of my dreams, the book I am writing towards, reaching towards, hoping to write. It's shaped just right: it says and does all the things I want to say in precisely the right way. It feels right -- and feel is a big thing for me in writing. If the words on the screen, the paper, give me that same tingle I get from my favourite parts of my favourite, most-admired books (the 'Place Royale chapter in Vingt Ans Apres; the death of Porthos; the end of Dying of the Light or of Ancient Light), then I know I've got it right. But it almost never happens. Like skiing, most of the time, the words -- the turns -- are not-quite-there, not shapely enough, not neat enough, not perfect. And the book -- or the properly skied challenging run -- remains something that, in my head, I essentially failed at.

And then, when it comes down to it, people do judge. And -- in the case of published work, at least -- that's fair enough. It's irritating and sometimes hurtful when strangers call out comments about my skiing (or my face or clothes or age or body). Reviews are fair game. But the art is avoiding inintended harm. One reviewer labelled Gracielis a Mary Sue, which irritated me, because a) how to suppress women's writing 101 and b) hello, reviewer, *Thierry* is my darling. Another however noted that in , the womenn suffer more than the men. I hadn't noticed that nor intended it, but the culture that made me taught me that women with power are at greater risk and I reproduced that. Right until the point where I started writing in the hope I might produce something publishable, I had always written female characters as the main protagonist. But first Valdarrien (in a drawer) and then Ghosts placed men at the centre. Aude was harder to write than either Valdin or Gracielis, because with every page I was fighting the script that told me she didn't belong in the limelight. (Aude herself disagrees profoundly with this statement.) Women's writing is policed and judged at every turn, and the definitions of perfection change all the time, vary between cultures -- but women, in particular, seem sometimes to be expected to satisfy everyone while simultaneously removing themselves from sight and hearing because public writing space remains gendered mostly male and women's work is inferior, imitative, irrelevant and, of course, much more likely to be failed and broken and evil. It would take a perfect writer to avoid that -- and I am not, never will be, a perfect writer. And then, this kind of perfection -- the perfection that satisfies others, avoids harm, does not take up space etc etc -- is closer in type to that perfect skier I cannot be than the author of the perfect book I sometimes glimpse. The perfect book is in my head, after all, but these other perfections are all about the needs and wants and demands and angers of others.

All this is, frankly, a pain in the rear. The marquis doesn't expect perfection and I've only met one ski instructor who did (and he was more interested in lunch than teaching anyway). Those upslope skiers have other things on their mind. I know perfectionism is a bad habit. But I can't break it. I can't break it because I have never yet in all my too many years managed to work out how I can possibly ever allow myself to be good enough, imperfect, without that being deadly wrong. (And it does sometimes feel like it's about life and death.)

I don't have these standards for others. Other people are allowed, most definitely, to be good enough. They can be rubbish, if they want (they usually don't). It's only me. And mostly, it's so that I won't be in the way, inconvenient, in someone else's light.

I'm told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident. That solves everything, it seems. A confident skier says, 'I have the technique, I can handle these conditions.' A confident writer says... Well, they say something. It just that, well....

What do people mean? What is confidence, anyway and where is the border with entitlement? And if I'm supposed to be confident for my own good, how come the request that I be so is so often phrased in ways that suggest it's really all about others. "You need to be more confident. It makes the department look bad." "Your underconfidence is really annoying." "Why can't you be more confident, then, if you don't like it when you get overlooked?"

And if I do speak up, things are inclined to fall (metaphorically) on my head. If I was perfect, presumably, they wouldn't fall; I'd have done confidence right and all would be well. I might never reach the perfect book (I don't think that's possible) but I might get to be that good enough skier who wasn't inconveniencing *everyone* just by being there and feel permitted to write without too mkuch fear.

But confidence, like perfection, is just out of reach.

SKirt of the day -- blue wedgwood (of course a skirt has come with me.)

So, snow...

It's almost that time again, when the marquis and I head off with assorted other Cambridge fen to slide down mountains and try not to break ourselves. We're going to Arabba in the Italian Dolomites this time, and the flight is at really silly a.m. on Saturday. So tomorrow is all about packing and doing and getting down to Gatwick.
The book is pottering along. I'm taking a notebook -- the old-fashioned kind made of paper with a binding, that you write in with a pen -- so I shall be off-line until I get back (on the 28th Jan.) Have a good week, all.


Standing on the lip, on the edge, on the peak of a slope is a little like the moment before flight. For one instant I am hanging in limbo and then... Sometimes skiing is the closest thing I know to weightlessness.
It was good: good snow, wide clear pistes, long mountain silences. Easy and regular and cheap buses and trains meant we could go on each day to somewhere new, somewhere different. We skiied Fieberbrunn and St Johan in Tyrol, Waidring-Winklmoos and St Ulrich, Kitzbuhel and Saalbach-Leogang. I have skiied those sections of the Hahnenkamn men's world cup downhill which are open to the casual skier (things you hear yourself saying and then wonder at 'I would rather do the world cup downhill than a rope drag lift')* and neither fallen nor struggled too much. I have survived another black at the same place (Kitzbuhel) that had a 1 in 2 slope and rather a lot of ice on it (and didn't fall on that, either, though language was uttered). I have eaten rather a lot of apfelstrudel (though I left the germknudel to the marquis). All the resorts were lovely, apart from Saalbach, which was a bit icey when we were there, and has slightly irritating connectively. Waidring and Kitz in particular are heavenly -- if you have a shot at one or two days skiing in the Austrian Tyrol, Waidring is the place to go (unless you're a beginner, it's too small for a week but for a day it's delightful -- a huge bowl with runs of all levels and fabulous views).
The castle was delightful and rather barking (it's Schlosshotel Rosenegg, for those who like castles).
*I stick to this view. I hate rope drags. A rope drag broke my rib once... Black runs are far less scary.**
** European black runs. Those single and double black diamond runs you have in Canada and the USA are another matter entirely.
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More skiing

The marquis having located a genuine castle with attached skiing, we are off from tomorrow for a week of sliding and hopefully not breaking anything. I doubt there will be internet, so if you need me, alas, it will have to wait till a week on Sunday.
have fun wherever you are.
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WInter Olympics

Note to self: it is not advisable to keep staying up till the small hours to watch the Winter Olympics.... But, on the other hand, the moguls events were riveting. (In another life....) Many congratulations to Alexandre Bilodeau and all my Canadian friends on that first gold medal. Two rocking runs.

And she's back

It was an interesting week. The start... no, not so good. But the end was mainly fun and largely relaxing.
I've done a lot of solo travelling. Back in the early 90s, my first academic job was in Dublin. The marquis was in Cambridge. We took it in turns to come over, once a fortnight, for about 18 months, and the rhythm of that -- of lone flying -- remains with me. And in the decade that followed, the marquis stayed in Cambridge and I criss-crossed the UK alone every weekend. I've flown to the US alone twice, and returned alone from the Netherlands. I've been to Milan and back. I have restless genes, I do not like to be still. And yet at the same time, I hate to be apart from the marquis, and -- from those Dublin days -- I miss Cambridge, I miss this house (which we moved into in December 1991 at the end of my Dublin adventure). I'm a creature of imbalance, prone to running, and yet sternly fastened.
I was never homesick as a child or a student. It's this house that has taught me that. My years teaching were reft with that, with hiraeth, that longing that is not quite homesickness and not quite nostalgia, and all about the hunger for belonging. Travelling to join the marquis mid-week, I watched cormorants on Lac Leman from the windows of the train and counted castles in case he had missed them on his trip out (he had missed the biggest, it transpired -- it's harder to see from the road than the train). I love to be in new places, to explore, to see. And I love not to be away, and the two are never mutually content.
But it was pleasant, mostly (too much food), and my skiing is improving (because this is a skill, so I must be always studying and learning: this is not just about fun). The snow was good and on the last day we found a wide red bowl where I could practice off-piste within my comfort zone for terrain. (For the record, I can ski many blacks on piste -- though I do not go near double black diamonds -- but I have little experience with fresh powder, as Europe is not prone to it. I like moguls but am slow with them and inelegant; I count as a high intermediate and that suits me.)
And then we came home. The cats were pleased to see us and our cat feeder -- the wonderful elfwhistletree was relieved, as Horus had hidden from her consistently and she was concerned. He was home: he was just being shy. I have a short story to finish and a scary Celtic novel to confront. En avant...