My thoughtful readers and all the pioneer bloggers out there have brought my attention to something. Firstly, the draw of honesty, and secondly, how we might write.
Perhaps, they are the same thing.
So far, my writing journey has lasted nine years – the same amount of time that Dan and I have been together. All along, there has been fear, in various degrees, with both of these loves. Each of them hinge on my ability to look into my heart, but more than that – to be honest about what I find there. We look outwards all day long – we do it without thinking, never facing the conundrum of: I want to see this rose in front of me, but how do I do that?
But looking into the heart? At some point in my life I stopped doing that, and without realising I lost an important art – one that we are born with, but which must be nurtured if it is to stay with us.
I know that, as a child, growing up on a farm kept me close with my heart. I was left much to myself in a landscape of hills of soft wheat. Cows gave birth, milk, shit – such extremes, such experiences! The house itself gave a total sense of safety, but also a feeling of magic. It was a house of fairytales, somehow, perhaps because of the books I was reading, which I kept on the table at my bedside, but also because of mysterious sounds, which came from the ancient floors. The rooms were cold, there were bird’s nests on the window sills.
All this time I looked in. My heart was my friend. I have no memory of the conscious act, but I feel – now – how strong my impulses are within, developed for so many years. But, I have had to refashion the synapses, which connect me to them.
I am still learning.
Some of this ‘education’ is an act of deciphering: looking, listening, decoding. When I was at drama school, I spent hours, lying on a plain of wooden floorboards, feeling like there was something wrong with me.
Put your attention into your feet, our voice coach would tell us.
With my eyes closed, I would wonder how I might go about that. In this private experience of doubt I felt alone.
Looking back on my adolescence – and sharing it with people (those I know, and those I don’t!) has been a joyful experience. I am lifted up with the beauty of reciprocity. There is nothing to fear. We are not alone.
Every morning at Drama School, I would lie on my back and feel exposed. It had something to do with having my eyes closed – not knowing what was going on around me. And, as if in compensation, I would find my other senses intensified. Sounds came as though they were right at my ear. Often, this would bring a painful awareness that many people in the room were able to exhale for far longer than me. I would try to breathe in deeper, exhale slower, but then I would feel tense, and grow unhappy, frustrated. Sometimes, my breath would come in a faltering shudder. Sometimes, it would come out in one gulp, and then there would be nothing, and I would experience a strong desolation.
All the while, the voice teacher walked through the room, continuing with her instructions. I felt she could see past my flesh into where I didn’t want her to know. I felt that, despite knowing what was going on, she kept quiet about it – perhaps out of some hope for me. I wanted, in our private voice sessions, to weep and bare all, but at the same time I couldn’t trust this instinct. A lot of girls were weeping in the corridors and classrooms – I wasn’t able to shrug the feeling that it was all a bit of a parade.
Now, when I give my breathing a look, I have come to a point where I want to know all about it, instead of trying to make it ‘fit’. How can you ever know yourself if you do that; if you make of your soul’s journey something of a pottery lesson, shaping the clay without first looking at it, seeing perhaps which shape it already resembles, where it asks to go?
There are days when my breathing is shallow – when I can hardly feel anything at all; then I bring my attention outwards a little, to the next perimeter – perhaps my tummy or my back, see if I can get a sense of that. I might feel where they lie with my clothes, or contact the floor, the wall, the mattress.
But I accept. There are the numb times. Those days where I seem to bounce in the world, where all I can feel is the very outside of me, fighting through the air – those times when I can’t even feel that, and could be nothing at all. There are times when my head won’t shut up. It wants to question everything. There is a tone of despair, wailing, why? This can often be relieved by thinking of childhood curiosity, connecting to that state of knowing nothing, but feeling no fear at that, coming to everything with the joy and excitement that we once came at everything, our instincts forever guiding us towards knowledge.
At the same time, when the feeling is wondrous, I don’t cling to it, desperate for it to stay. Last night I had a beautiful sense of my neck, running from almost halfway up my skull down into my shoulders. It wasn’t the bone I was following, but it was more than the outside of my flesh. Perhaps it was tendons. It was all there. Today, not so much, but I am happy to wait – to look and accept what is there.
At the beginning of my MA in Creative Writing, I hadn’t found a permanent place to live. I first stayed on a friend’s sofa in Clapham while the introductory week was going on. I only had a pair of flipflops, even though this was now late September. I had spent the last 18 months in Mexico and, somehow, came home to find things mysteriously vanished.
Next, I moved in with the sister of a boy I was at junior school with. I had a box room, but during the day I would sit in the attic upstairs – the sitting room. With my computer on my lap, I worked. I had the view through the skylight – that feeling of space a stretch of sky brings me. One of the stories I wrote here was published, but so many weren’t. I wanted to know what I’d done right, but also what I was doing wrong. One story I remember in particular because of what it taught me. It was called, The Observation Book, and began like this:
Isobel and I wonder if Franklin wears a wig. That’s the great thing about having a twin – no matter how mad my thoughts are, I know I’m not alone. We’re sitting now in the front room watching him through the window.
‘There,’ Isobel says as we see the wind gust in the trees, but on the ground Franklin’s hair remains fast. ‘Surely?’ She says, but apparently not.
Franklin leans over and starts raking the lawn and we hold our breaths, but nothing happens: leaves pile up, birds fly over, and our wig theory remains unconfirmed.
I would begin new paragraphs thinking: but how am I supposed to decide if these two twins should have a father, or whether the gardener does wear a wig?
I felt that doubt was an error of my ways, my technique. I was doing something wrong, which I needed to resolve so I could make decisions and get on with the story.
I have come to learn that the answer is simply the one we choose. Only that. If I choose those twins have a father, then they do. As for the gardener, I spent the whole story with these two young girls, wondering what would happen: how do I know? how do I answer? how do I choose?
It was like walking at night with a torch. In the blackness, the light shined forth only a little way. My eyes were able to continue some of the work and see muffled shapes beyond the bright. Then there were the sounds to go by, which came out of the dark – sometimes soothing, sometimes not. I had to take it slow. Take each step. No matter how much I wanted, I couldn’t see beyond the torch beam. I had to trust. There was something there – I just couldn’t see it right then, but I would – we never stay stuck forever. I kept exploring what I did know, what I could see. I kept true.
What did I discover about the wig? In the final scene, the mother is sitting with her daughters at the kitchen table. The gardener is desolate as a result of a huge case of stage fright he has just experienced. Franklin is a member of the local operatic society. They perform Gilbert and Sullivan musicals in minimal settings. He is in the aftermath of humiliation. He still has his costume on. Here I was with my torchlight. I could see this scene very clearly, but still not beyond it, though I knew I was close to the end, I could sense it from the darkness beyond. I took my time, I didn’t rush. Round the kitchen I went. To the dog Heidi who had been a good character up until this point, perhaps she had an answer. Then finally, I found myself at the gardener’s costume. And there it was. The beam shining on the final part of my journey.
They offer everyone a refund, but nobody takes it.
We all file out of the city hall in silence and head back to our cars. Heidi is carrying her beanbag in her mouth and tottering along as if this is an evening like any other and I envy her ignorance. We shut her in the back of the car and drive the twenty minutes home without saying a word. We can’t even bear to put the radio on, and for once Isobel doesn’t even bother trying to annoy me.
At home, we put the kettle on and wait for Franklin to come and pick up Heidi. As we are sipping tea and Mother is just setting out a fruit cake and some plates and cutlery, there is a knock at the back door. We know who it must be, but in the six years Franklin has worked for Mother he has never once knocked. Isobel gets up and answers the door and we see Franklin, still in full costume, standing out in the cold shivering.
‘Oh Franklin,’ Mother says and gets up and brings him inside. She then sits him down and serves him up a huge slice of cake and pours him a cup of tea. Heidi pads over and eye’s him up cautiously, but when he breaks off a piece of cake and holds it out for her she gobbles it up and then lays her head on his lap.
Franklin tips half the sugar bowl into his tea, stirs it and takes a long sip. He then reaches up and begins to remove his hat. As he takes it off I grab Isobel’s knee because along with the hat comes his whole head of hair and he is sitting at the table as bald as a nectarine, sighing and shaking his head.
‘Oh heavens,’ Mother says, but then she springs up and starts rummaging in one of the kitchen drawers as if she has just remembered something, and we all carry on as if normal.
‘I knew every line of that song,’ Franklin says eventually. ‘Every line. I’ve been singing it every day in the shower for the last six weeks.’ He then cups his hands over his reddening cheeks and stares down at the crumbs on his plate.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mother says and wanders over and squeezes his shoulder. Isobel and I are both speechless; we can’t take our eyes off his shiny head. (I am praying he won’t feel a draft.)
‘Stage fright,’ Franklin says. ‘I’ve always had it. That’s why I never get the decent parts. But they were desperate tonight.’ His bottom lip starts to quiver and then a fat tear rolls down his cheek and into his big droopy moustache. ‘That was my w-w-w-one ch-ch-ch-chance,’ he sobs.
He is about to bury his head in his hands and Mother looks at Isobel and me in terror. I leap up out of my chair and shove his hat back down on his head and start humming the opening to his song. He looks at me as if I am completely bananas, but I straighten his hat, making sure the hair underneath is in place, and start humming the opening again.
Isobel then gets up out of her seat and takes his hand and starts humming too. Mother starts to clap in time to the music and Franklin suddenly opens his mouth and sings. Then we are all dancing around the kitchen and Heidi is jumping and barking. Mother hitches her skirt up and starts kicking her legs in the air and Isobel and I are shaking our bottoms and Franklin is singing with his gentle voice: ‘A wandering minstrel I, A thing of shreds and patches…’
Writers out there, go with care, go with honesty, and trust that in the blackness beyond the answers lie waiting. They come when the time is right.