Marina Benjamin is a Writer and Editor with a wealth of experience working across the non-fiction landscape. Including, journalism, essay-writing, family history and memoir writing. I recently finished reading one of her books, The Middlepause, an open-hearted personal account taking inspiration from literature and philosophy to weigh the challenges and opportunities that mid-life presents. It was suggested to me as I crashed into the menopause, a central theme of this work. But I have recommended this book to friends, menopausal or not, because what really struck me about this book, in the words of the Financial Times, is that it is an erudite look at the physical and mental challenges of life that we have no control over.
Hello Marina, thank you for joining me. Can you give a synopsis of your book ‘The Middlepause and why you wrote it?
I should start by saying why I wrote it, because that might explain its structure. And I wrote it because I found myself in a very difficult place after having a surgical hysterectomy . It’s fair to say that I was in a state of shock. I’d thought that in having the hysterectomy I was a freeing myself from troublesome gynaecological problems, that from then on I’d be moving more lightly through the world, but instead I found myself in a psychological state of arrest – quite apart from the physical reckoning of coming to terms with sudden menopause and what it means to no longer be a reproductive woman. I was now keeping company with a profoundly unappealing range of stereotypes – everything from the barren woman to the hex-casting crone. Having to navigate all that in a way that felt meaningful was what led me into wanting to explore what midlife was actually about.
I wanted to look at some really difficult emotions, like grieving and loss, since I felt there wasn’t much room or much tolerance in the existing literature for those kind of feelings. It irked me that there was a real cultural pressure to be upbeat about ageing, and to subscribe to a retro-feminist cuteness that slates 50 as the new 40, or 40 as the new 30. The kind of thinking that locks us into always optimising ourselves and downsizes our comfort zone around aging. I didn’t feel fabulous at 50, and I wanted to take that feeling seriously, and write about it in a way that wasn’t unapproachable.
Not at all, I found your book really approachable. You managed to tie together many enthralling different themes — science, philosophy, literature. How did you manage collating this, tying together so many different threads so seamlessly?
Writing that book was an important journey for me. I didn’t have a pre-determined view I wished to hammer home, or anything prescriptive to recommend; instead, I wanted to set out as a querent, saying ‘okay — I’m starting at this point, this menopause, approaching 50 and feeling un-moored, and what does that mean? And since I’m not going to evade grief and loss — ‘where do we go from there’? Though I start with the body, the hysterectomy and the surgery and the HRT, and continually circle back to the body, my reading led me to science and psychology, philosophy, and literature. The body knows stuff and the body learns, but in the writing, it was a matter of balancing this ‘body knowledge’ with my wider reading.
I became especially interested in developmental psychology, wondering how we cope with ageing when we are repeatedly reminded that increasing age is associated with redundancy of some kind. At 50 I didn’t feel redundant! I felt I’d landed in a key developmental moment that was in every way as self-defining as turning 30, a moment that demands a stripping down of illusion and an intelligent reckoning with the self. Each chapter engages with or features a key thinker who’d help me think through a particular problem. With Edith Wharton, it was about looking at the female horror of ageing, the reluctance to let go of youth, and that feeling of being eclipsed by the younger generation – feelings that many women have when they age, and meet with the impulse to run away. I wanted to pick apart some of what that programming is about; to ask where those fears come from, and how you can learn to better live with them.
I leant heavily on Erik Erikson’s understanding of staged development in my chapter on mothering a teenager (why is so much writing about motherhood concerns only with newborns?), the sense that your psyche isn’t imprinted at birth or in your infant experiences, in the way that Freud would insist on, but that it continues to develop and mature in relation to social context. When it came to the chapter that explored my father dying (and my mourning him) and his refusal to accept his own ageing process and inevitable death, I looked to Jung. It felt kind of organic really, hopping from one thinker to the next, as my research progressed.
I see that, the chapters are entitled Organs, Hormones, Skin, Muscle, Heart, Guts, Teeth, Head, and lastly, Spine. Did you have those chapters in mind at all when you started this journey, investigation?
No I didn’t, and that’s the interesting thing about writing a book. I love the way that a book reveals itself to you as you go along. But I can remember exactly where I was when I had that (chapter headings) idea: I was in Berlin, at the British Council Literature Conference, feeling quite over stimulated listening to the likes of Frances Leviston, Deborah Levy and Phillip Hoare. It was a very buzzy conference, full of ideas, and in just one moment sitting there I was suddenly struck that the common thread running through everything I was writing was a bodily reality, an inescapable materiality. All I had to hand was a scrawny bit of note paper and I scribbled down the chapter headings, assigning body parts to my various themes. In the book, I have them running down the middle of the contents page, like a spine. It was an important containing device for that book. And I’ve written again recently about the important of feminist materialism for a new Dodo Ink essay collection, Trauma, (out in Jan 2021).
There is a point to every aspiring writer to carry a notebook around with them! I guess you’ve shown that if the work, short story, book is an investigation, you have to let it flow a bit.
I think it’s about remaining open; you know, it’s a trick when you’re writing to remain open to stimulation and to your unconscious mind and those creative processes that kind of burble away beneath the surface. And to somehow have one part of your brain that does the planning and the other part that’s receptive to the unexpected, so that you’re constantly navigating between those two states, imposing structure while being open to surprise!
You’ve created a book that is creative yet informative, there’s scientific references and endnotes, and an enthralling story, how did you the right voice to be able to do this?
I think voice is really very interesting. It is the thing that pulls everything together, holds everything in balance, It’s the unifying quality that gives a book is coherence and its punch. If you try to pick apart what it is, it’s a kind of interesting and elusive quality, that’s hard to pin down. But I think voice broadly equates with attitude; it’s the angle you take, the choices you make when approaching a subject, and the slant at which you refract out your thinking around it. Voice is not a performative thing — if it sounds hollow, your reader will find you out immediately. You can’t go into the costume box and pull out something and suddenly there you have your voice!
I also think that this quality of voice is different for each book you write, so perhaps there is a baseline sense in which you are performing, after all; but I think you’re performing parts of your genuine self: it has to be authentic. And for it to be authentic, I think you discover voice in the writing. Effectively, you write your way into voice. That’s why writers starting a new project should be very patient with themselves, because most of the time voice is not going to be there immediately. I do think that sometimes voice can manifest itself immediately – and that is a rare thing I’ve been lucky enough to experience once, with my memoir Insomnia (2018). On that occasion I didn’t have to go hunting for ‘voice’, but with every other book, I wrote quite a bit before I felt I was in a groove, or that I’d relaxed sufficiently into the project to project an attitude towards it . Hanif Kureshi once said that for him a quality of ‘carelessness’ was necessary to creativity. I agree; once you’ve relaxed into a project you can be carefree, even playful. In fact, it’s particularly enjoyable to play with serious or sad subjects.
You have previously spoken (The Slate interview, 2017) about the feeling of being disarmed, something a lot of people are feeling given the current climate. Can you talk a little more about dealing with this for our inspiring writers who are perhaps feeling blocked and displaced?
As it happens, I feel just like those writers, you know, I feel quite paralysed. It’s very difficult at the moment, because other than reading you can’t do much in lockdown — you can’t travel, or do extensive research, or visit libraries, archives and galleries. I’ve been reading and walking, which are things I find really creative, but it’s still hard to see the new project or to give it legs when you’re so restricted. On top of that there’s the anxiety of living during a pandemic, in unprecedented times etc, etc. Managing such feelings and then turning up at your desk to be productive is a big ask. At the same time, I would say that being thrown off or disarmed, and feeling totally un-moored as a result was the source of the creative impulse behind my last two books. Rather than run away from those feelings or try and find a place of stability, I attempted to write into the uncertainty and the anxiety, to go with its countergrain, and for me that was fruitful, because it put me in a place of not knowing, or unknowing, which is a good place to start from as a writer — It means that there’s everything to learn and to gain; you have to decide what it is that you’re going to weigh or give weight to, everything is levelled in a way.
I think we are all learning to accommodating our anxieties right now, living with them and getting to know their quirky ways. We are trying to figure out ways to manage living in a world where that many people are dying each day, and yet also behave as if each day were a normal day.
You created a project, ‘Garden among Fires’ (https://marinabenjamin.wordpress.com)
in response to the first lockdown.
Yes. I thought it would be so interesting to call on writers to talk about their experiences in this crazy time. So I set up this pop-up blog. I intended it to last for the three months of (first) lockdown, and then I planned to take it down. I invited writers to write on different themes, mostly their skewed mental state and whatever antidote they’d found to tackle it, and I also approached writers from different countries to talk about what it was like in their backyard.
I was truly overwhelmed by the response. The blog took on a momentum of its own, and the quality of what came in was really wonderful. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with all those writers who were talking about the way in which, as in Julia’s (Bell) piece for example, time became suddenly saggy and elastic and strained, so that you were swimming in it rather than living it day by day. Another contributor wrote about the journey he would daily take, counting every step, from his bedroom door to his dining table. The cabin fever of it! When Dodo Ink approached me wanting to turn the blog into an e-book, I started editing it a bit more carefully. I’m thrilled with the anthology, which came out in June, and that fact that all proceeds from sales go to Refuge, a UK charity working with women and children who’ve suffered domestic violence.
Lastly, how many hours do you write and read a day? And how do you cope if you don’t hit your target?
I’m hopelessly undisciplined as a writer, and I pay for it, too. I can go for long periods between books where I’m not really doing much writing. I want to be truthful here — I really don’t write every day, and there are long gaps in which I sometimes feel disconsolate and despairing. When I am working on a book, I have to get to arrive at a kind of ‘pass the threshold’ bar, a critical point past which the book grabs me and holds me in its power, and I have no choice but to write it. Once at that point I write quite obsessively, and quite fast. I wish I had a more balanced working method. I do do free writing, but I tend to write around questions that I have about my investment in a subject or else I interrogate my assumptions. I usually write with prompts for that, and I’m forever opening files and putting down thoughts, or scribbling have stuff in notebooks. But the real coalescing of a project comes once there is a level of obsession that means I don’t even think about stick-to intuitiveness, it just overtakes me. I think I’ve got a lot to learn from other writers about how better to manage my own impulses and creativity!