sanity

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.

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