Thinking outloud

Artichoke II

Dead-headed queen

crownless in a devastation of hay

inflorescence grounded

thick timber uprooted

your fibrous globes

from fresh leaves

cut loose from glaucous leaves

 

Wisdom’s rattling weight

Weight of bract and choke

cast down

overthrown by cultivation

sacrificed as life-blood

for budding usurpers

 

Your fallen head

Coarse crown disguarded

tragically close

mulching in nettles

watched by the spinney greenery

of the next generation

of your thistley children

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The hump

The hump is always there.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write. It doesn’t matter how much I love the process of writing. It doesn’t matter how hungry I’ve been to get to my desk and get pen to paper, finger tips to keys. Every time I want to write, I have to heave the baggage of my intentions over the hump first.

The hump is a hybrid creature. It’s a living, breathing thing that changes shape, size and consistency depending on my particular mood. Sometimes it’s a laziness, a desire to stay in bed that little bit longer rather than pull myself out of sleep and onto the page. Sometimes it’s a stack of More Important Things demanding my attention and insisting that I Must Complete These Tasks First before I can spare the twenty minutes of head-space I allow myself six days a week for writing.

But sometimes it’s something less solid, less obvious than these ploys to stay away from the page. When the hump is about choosing a ten-minute lie-in over an extra ten minutes with a pen in hand, I can judge the height, width and texture of what I’m doing battle with. When it’s a Papier-Mache mound of bills, emails and to-do lists, I can get my gait right and hurdle over its hollow shell. It’s when the hump is transparent that I have real problems, when it in fact denies its very existence.

Like when I watch yet another episode of The X-Files rather than picking up that novel I’ve been dying to read for months. Or when it’s composed of Big Questions about Who I Am and Why Am I Doing This. At its most insidious, the hump is made up of the crazy springs and snares of justification, reasonable explanations as to Why I Shouldn’t Write Today. It’s particularly nasty then. Brush up against the rust and jagged edges and justification is infectious, will run riot across you.

This time, the hump was perfectionism. I don’t like this post. Something in the imagery is not working for me. So I’ve sat on it for weeks. And let its draft-y presence stop me writing anything else.

Recognising that there is a hump, always a hump, has been the thing that’s starting to make a real difference. Now I know getting myself to the waiting page is a similar process to cycling up hill. I know when I crest that summit, the view from the top and the free-wheeling down the other side will not only make it all worthwhile, the rush will make me feel so alive I won’t even remember the slog to get to the top.

But that doesn’t stop the lactic acid making my muscles moan and the little demon on my shoulder insist that I really don’t need to put myself through this, so why don’t I just stop? Certain days, that demon barely gets a whisper in before I’m at the top, over the hump and letting gravity take the reins. Other days, he’s in full voice before I’ve even gotten to the base. Either way, when I’m really out on my bike, I’ve never once gotten off and pushed the bike back home. Nah, that promise, that distant memory of what’s over the other side is enough to keep my teeth gritted and my legs peddling.

I don’t even have to peddle to get over the writing hump. Just got to grit those teeth, keep breathing and pick up that pen. That’s it. Hump surmounted. Time to let the words free-wheel across the page.

Write like you’re already dead

I’ve crashed smack into one of writing’s realities. A couple of people I know in the real world have looked at this blog. Which in itself is ok, I guess, although if I’m honest, part of me curls up into a ball and prays for non-existence each time I realise this. But then, even worse, some people have mentioned it to me, in real life, face to face.

I think the only other time I’ve wanted the ground to swallow me up that much was after I got so nervous at a work Christmas do, I got horrendously drunk and threw up in a plant pot in the hotel lobby, before being poured into a cab and sent home. At my boss’s expense.

Going into work the next day was not easy.

Knowing that people I know have read this blog is on a par with that.

But why? Why is it so awful to know you’re being read and being read by people you know? Aren’t I writing to be read? And why the hell else would I link this blog to Twitter if I didn’t want people to see what I’m doing?

These are questions I’m having to really think hard about. Because actually, I’m not sure being read is the main purpose behind my writing. In fact, it’s almost an accidental by-product of what it is I’m doing. I started these posts to help me write regularly, to try and write myself into a new life, and to maybe put something into the world that I wanted there but couldn’t find. For once in my life, it was all about me, not about my audience or what other people wanted.

Writing for myself and keeping it relatively anonymous gave me a freedom that was sorely missing elsewhere. It allowed me to say fuck it, what do you want to say, what do you want read, what do you want to think? And as I did so, I unbuttoned the straight-jacket I’d put on my life. It let me see how dead my world had become because I was letting the word ‘should’ and its evil twin ‘ought’ dictate everything I did. Killing off desire, suffocating even the most meagre dream. What a hygienic empty-headed vessel I aspired to be. What a willing malleable citizen I wanted to become – pristine, sensible, and utterly sane – everything, in fact, that I am not.

So I write what I know, or write what I need to see in the world, to keep writing myself into existence, to give myself legitimacy and a voice and a pulse. Which is fantastic. Until people you know start to read your stuff. Because now they can see my process of falling apart and putting myself together, again and again and again.

But then if that’s how it is for me, then why shouldn’t I write about my reality? And how much do people really read or care anyway?

I want to be honest. Not through bland statement of fact, but by using the lies of fiction to capture truths (that’s not my line by the way, I think I’ve nicked that from Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch). But it’s so much easier to be honest when you don’t have to live with it, when you can hide behind words and anonymity. When your cover’s blown, it’s so tempting to tidy up your thoughts and your language and tone down your topics, keep things sane and safe and in line with the person you want to be day-to-day, because you know there’s a chance real life is going to throw your words back at you.

But how dead would that be? Patrolling your thoughts, policing your prose, stepping back from the brink because you should, because you ought to, because maybe . . . Before you know it, you’re buttoning up that straight-jacket again, settling in for maddeningly comfortable life without the discomfort of creativity.

Years ago, I came across a quote from Nadine Gordimer, which I’ve probably mentioned before because it’s stuck with me. She was talking about writing in South Africa under apartheid, where she continually caused controversy for exposing the flaws in the anti-apartheid movement alongside her relentless critique of apartheid itself. Just because the anti-apartheid cause was good didn’t make them saints and Gordimer’s commitment to representing what she saw as honestly as possible made her unpopular among the very people she was supporting. But challenging the temptation of sainthood, excoriating the polished surface and hygienic narrative of the ‘good guys’ was just as important for keeping people ‘good’ as crying out against the inhumanity of apartheid.

To write this honestly, Gordimer said that you have to write like you’re already dead, to put yourself beyond embarrassment. You have to pretend that you’ve passed beyond the realm of friends and family, and so forget that you’re capable of embarrassing or bringing shame on them as well as yourself. It’s only by writing like you’ve got nothing to lose that you’ll ever be able to write anything worth a damn.

I’m not Nadine Gordimer. I’m not battling apartheid. I’m just trying not to curl up into silence – or even worse, disappear into pretty prose. So here I am, putting myself out there again, learning to write like I’m already dead.

Useless and useful emotion

I haven’t done much writing in the past ten days. Unexpected things have taken me unexpected places, and any scrap of routine has had to be abandoned in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. When I have had moments to myself, I’ve been exhausted, drained and not really capable of speaking, let alone writing.

But now things are starting to settle again, I’ve found myself curiously resistant to putting my butt on the chair in front of my desk where my pen and paper are waiting for me (laying out the tools on my desk the night before has been really useful for making me write in the morning). I’ve been finding ‘more important things to do’, like, empty the dishwasher, stay in bed for half an hour longer, faff around choosing what to wear (which is ridiculous when you realise my wardrobe is entirely one colour – another tip from other writers – limit life’s less important decisions). Given that I only have a small portion of the day I can dedicate to writing, I am appalled at myself even as I’m doing these ‘more important things’ for giving up my precious sliver of creative space so readily.

What’s keeping me from settling down and entering the frame of mind that I fantasise about the rest of the day?

Guilt.

I feel guilty that life took me away from my writing for a few days, and so now writing has morphed into something I ‘should’ be doing, rather than something I want to do, am compelled to do, am hungry to do.

The moment ‘should’ comes into the equation, I can hear doors slamming and horizons narrowing. And my writing creaks along under the weight of the burdens that have been placed upon it.

‘Should’ was the reason I walked away from the way I was working before.

Guilt about writing – or any creative enterprise – is not a useful emotion.

That’s not to say guilt isn’t useful for creativity. Those things that gnaw at the edges of your being, fraying your present with your past. That flood of adrenaline and elation and pain that rises when you’re in the wrong and aren’t going to do anything about it. The battles we have with ourselves as part of us tries to put down a weight that another part insists we continue to carry as penance. There’s sparks of potential in this kind of suffering. But this guilt, not guilt about creativity.

Anxiety is an interesting contrast to guilt in terms of its usefulness. I used to think anxiety was the most unpleasant, least productive state of being possible, but it’s come to my attention recently that I might not have understood the nature of the beast. Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism is particularly illuminating in opening up the nuances and possibilities buried in the twitchy, breathless, fluttery states I get in. She points out, for instance, that anxiety can be seen as a form of excitement, anticipation that isn’t necessarily unpleasant.

Reading that opened up the whole experience of anxiety for me, made me recognise that sometimes I’m confusing fearful anxiety with the moments when I’m exhilarated by the challenge I’m about to face. That’s been really useful for recognising when I’m ready to write – getting anxious about writing isn’t a sign that I don’t know what I’m doing, but rather that I’m feeling ready to take on something big, take on the challenge. And once I’ve got my arse in the chair and my pen in my hand, the anxiety very quickly transforms into a focused concentration. For me now, getting the jitters is a useful sign, a sign that I’m ready to get writing.

Envy, too, used to be a real destructive and paralysing experience for me, in writing as well as in life in general. Reading work that left me wishing that I’d written it would make me stop reading and stop writing. I’d hate the author, resent the work and be overwhelmed by the utter futility of putting even one word onto the page – all of which only served to deprive my world of colour and pleasure and inspiration. And god forbid it was a friend who’d dared to write something I admired. Then, I’d could barely look at them, let alone recognise their success.

Susan Cain’s Quiet opened my eyes to the possibilities contained within envy. It’s a moment where two parts of yourself collide with one another, where your workaday self gets a smack round the face from your largely mute and submerged fantasy self. Envy tells you where your day-to-day existence isn’t delivering, what you aren’t doing for yourself in your life. This is incredibly useful when it comes to creativity – envy gives you signposts for where it is you want to be heading. Which now means, perversely, I quite enjoy getting envious now – it’s when I start taking note.

But guilt, I can’t see the purpose of it. I’ve got to come to the page with a willing abandon – be it joyful or reckless or mad or angry – and feeling guilty before you begin is just too civilising.

Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.

Childish or aware?

I’ve recently being experiencing one of those strange confluences life seems to throw up at particularly poignant moments. Rethinking my life, trying to figure out what constitutes a good life, and navigating my way through feeling like a ‘failure’ according to the yardsticks we’re given to measure success, it’s not surprising that you start to wonder whether you’re just struggling to be an adult. Have you simply failed to grow-up? Are you somehow still living in a childish fantasy, refusing to embrace the realities of this world?

At the same time, I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering some of the pleasures and influences of my childhood, both because I’ve been teaching children’s literature to undergraduates at a summer school, and because I’ve moved back to the place where I grew up. So at a time when I’m asking myself whether what I’m trying to do is foolish, insane, some kind of childish refusal to accept the way things are, I’m simultaneously rediscovering what exactly it means to be ‘childish’ – and what it means to be an ‘adult’.

It’s hard to see yourself as an adult sometimes if you don’t embrace some of the rites of passage your culture values. Marriage, owning property, becoming parents yourselves, careers, are all essential for marking the difference between adulthood and childhood, because without these ‘rites’ or means of measuring status, it’s hard to distinguish the point at which we no longer feel like children. Arguably, we reach a certain age when we realise that it’s only our bodies that are going to feel older – emotionally, psychologically, we are never going to magically ‘feel’ like grown-ups. Priorities, interests, desires and tastes change, but we won’t somehow ‘click’ into being an adult. It’s always going to you, making your way through the world the best you can.

Yet we do move away from childhood leanings and desires, even the ones that aren’t simply ‘childish’ urges and demands. Yes, age and experience change and even transform who we are, but does this necessarily equate to the need to give up everything associated with our youngest selves? Are we giving up certain parts of ourselves because we want to or because we feel that we should in our move to become adults? Or does our move to adulthood mean forget to pay attention to some of the smallest things that bring us pleasure?

Reading children’s books as an adult has been a revelation to me. For the past 200 years, we’ve been using stories as a way of educating children and one of the recurring themes in English-language children’s literature is just how foolish and child-like adults are, not least of all because they believe in things that aren’t there or aren’t important. Again and again, the classics of children’s literature in English return to the idea that grown-ups have forgotten how to live, or have forgotten some very important parts of life, that mean children are more alive to the world than adults.

I was in a café, thinking that a happy four year old could prove this idea to you inside of minute, when an elderly man and his carer sat at the table behind me, and started chatting loudly. Initially, I thought he was complaining about his food, but in fact, he was taking great pleasure in it, noticing the flavours, textures, complimenting the good, critiquing the sub-standard. As I listened, it struck me that we often conceptualise the oldest years of life as a form of regression, a return to childhood, not simply in terms of physical dependence, but also in terms of tastes, urges, temperament. At the same time, the people who have lived the longest in our culture continue to tell us we waste our lives worrying about things that don’t matter, working towards things that don’t mean as much as we think they do.

There are distinct parallels between how we treat the youngest and eldest people in our society. And there are distinct parallels between how they see us. Is there a way in which these parallels suggest that there’s something in the intervening stages of life that are the ‘aberration’ or the ‘confused’ stage of life? Can the way the youngest and those who’ve lived the longest see the years between teenaged turmoil and retirement teach us about the way we live and the way we could live?

So what do the middle years look like to people on either side, who have to live with us and under our regime? Children and people who’ve lived here much longer than us can see what a hash we all make of the middle years, as individuals and as a society. They can see that we don’t know what we’re doing, and more importantly, they can see that we constantly try to hide our ignorance, incompetence and lack of direction in convention and seriousness, cloaking our shortcomings by investing meaning into things that hold very little value at either end of life. In other words, they can see that we are human and lost – and so we will always be ridiculous to them in some way or another.

For either end of life, the middle years look like a gradual giving over of freedom and independence in order to pass for a competent adult. But does taking on responsibility automatically necessitate the given over of all that once meant something important to you? Is this what we have to do, or are we letting too much of ourselves be given over to the task of appearing to be a competent adult, of being a successful grown up?
More questions than answers. But I think there may be something to taking seriously the idea that some desires and pleasures are there in childhood and in later life. Maybe they are in fact there all along – we just forget to pay attention to them in the middle years.

Perilous narratives

One of the major signs that you’re creeping into depression is the narrative you’re telling yourself. If you’re managing to piece together random misfortunes and turn everyday slights into reflections on your worthiness to be alive, you rapidly start to construct a story in which the world is telling you that you don’t deserve to be here. Being able to disentangle these arbitrary connections is key to clambering out of the depressive pit, opening up life’s possibilities again and helping you recognise discrete moments in life for what they are: random, unconnected, survivable.

Weaving a narrative around certain aspects of your experience is perhaps unavoidable. As many many others have argued, there’s something about the way we experience time, moving from one hour to the next, passing from this day to the next day to the next, that invites us to think of our lives as following some kind of progression, or some kind of causal logic. Narrative, be it linear or not, is a way of thinking about motives, experiences and our present moment that helps us make some sense of where and how we are in the world. Just try and imagine explaining who you are now without relying on these things and you realise that things start to feel hideously chaotic pretty quickly when you peel back the narratives.

The danger comes when we forget that these narratives are fundamentally arbitrary, that they are created by us as a means of organising the vast array of stimuli that life throws our way. In order to work, this organising process is incredibly selective, constructing a story out of the most salient details and consigning the rest to silence. Again, as people like Hayden White have discussed in detail, narrative is as much constituted by what it excludes as what it includes – a story can only be told by choosing not to all possible others.

When the depressed mind stitches together fragments from everyday life into a self-loathing narrative, it does so by choosing to ignore all the equally present and equally random information that speaks of how you are loved, of your belonging, and the overwhelming evidence that none of us is exceptionally welcome or unwelcome in this universe. All the while, the depressed mind disavows its role in creating this bleak narrative and presents this story as fact, an undeniable, indelible truth. You can see how rediscovering the arbitrary nature of narrative works to open horizons up again as you come through depression.

But what’s struck me in recent months is just how perilous positive narrative can be. Putting ideologies and grand narratives to one side, it’s been the impact of the positive nature of the day-to-day stories that we tell ourselves that have unveiled to me the power and the dangers of our need for narrative.

The caring assurance that it will be alright in the end, that this will make you stronger. The positive assertion that you’ve worked so hard that you deserve this, so just hang in there. The knowledge that you are good, kind, have done all the ‘right’ things and hence good things will come. The certainty that there is something to be learnt, understood, or somehow taken from even the bleakest moment or most horrific event.

Why is a willingness to try and find a positive in the midst of the awful a problem? It isn’t necessarily. The problem comes when this is our default setting, our immediate reaction. The rush to narrative, the immediate impulse to insert the painful, tragic, traumatic into a larger story of strength, the need to find the positive angle straight away – making these arbitrary connections between present suffering and some unrealised future is actually a way of avoiding addressing that suffering. These narratives are not responses to the present; they’re a decision not to talk about the details of the present in order to construct the ‘other’ story, the positive one, the one that progresses towards a happier time.

The speed with which we look to the positive at the cost of tarrying with the actual experience of sorrow, despair, pain, leaves us utterly incapable of telling a narrative that really responds to the nature of that experience. Instead of slowly allowing a narrative to emerge that is shaped by what we’ve been through, we turn to the readymade, the stereotype, the way it should be. The cancer patient has a valiant, brave and touching fight for life. The addict reaches the lowest point and has a revelation that turns their life around. The dedicated artist suffers and struggles for decades before eventually receiving the fame and recognition they deserve. Insert own version of the positive narrative here.

All of these narratives only work by silencing the other stories: the horror and disintegration of living and dying with cancer, the absolute abject nature of an addict’s existence, the misery and boredom of sacrificing a life for a dream. As well as the stories of the people who don’t make it, because we can’t all have made it. It is physically impossible for the happy ending to come to all of us. And sometimes, something is just shit. It is so appalling or so banal in its ugliness that to try and take something profound from it is to outright lie.

If recognising the arbitrary nature of the negative narrative is vital to bring the depressed mind back to life’s possibilities, could we not say the same about the inanely positive? If we can’t recognise and respond to life’s challenges according to what they are, aren’t we just living half of the story? And in leaving the other half untold, aren’t we condemning the ones we love to suffer in silence?