I live in the student heart of Oxford. The supermarket is always filled with groups of young twenty year olds, wearing coats over their pyjamas – shopping baskets filled with jumbo bags of pasta. Some of them are discovering each other, cuddling by the eggs, indecisive at the meat section, saying, I don’t mind, in that soft, untroubled voice of infatuation. It’s an intoxication this besottedness – kissing by the breakfast cereal, holding hands to navigate the aisles. Gone is the burden of inhibition. New love is an open arena with no limits.
Growing up, I often had the feeling I should tone it down. Inside, I wanted to leap and play and talk and spin, but something of the world around gave me the impression that this wasn’t the place for that.
My mother enrolled me in an after school drama group. I felt the space around me begin to open up, though at the same time I was frustrated. To really have the chance to express myself, I needed a part – lines – but I was often overlooked. I watched other kids shuffling about, fiddling with their hands and mumbling when made to stand up in front of the group. I was bursting with stories and feelings. Even if it meant humiliating myself in front of a whole crowd, I didn’t care, just for the chance to do something spontaneous.
Being in love seemed like the one area where unbound exhibition had a place – songs and poems all spoke of intense experiences without restraint. Love offered the possibility of being in a huge, wonderful performance and I was dedicated to seeking it out. I can see myself at sixteen, fleeing up a stone staircase at school, being chased by my boyfriend like we’re in a movie.
What’s wrong? I’d asked him earlier when I found him looking miserable and pale.
He hadn’t wanted to tell me.
Fine, I said. But if you’re going to end it, at least have the guts to tell me why.
He stared at me, speechless. I thought him a coward and began to run.
He grabs my hand on the stairs.
Don’t you know? he says. Can’t you see it?
What? I shout.
I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do.
Oh, the drama. It was thrilling!
But the first time a boy asked me out in person, I nearly ran from the room – although it was a question I’d waited over a week to hear. We were sitting in his study room at boarding school. It was a Sunday. We were thirteen or fourteen. There must have been a point where the two of us were out on the lawn with our friends, as we were every Sunday – these large mixed groups that were full of wondrous potential.
The situation between us has been building for a number of days. I’d told a friend I fancied him – she’d told a friend of his, and that friend had come back with information. Now, it’s got to the point that both of us know how the other person feels. I’m waiting for the moment when something will happen.
We’re making our way through the long corridor of his boarding house towards his study room, which he shares with a dozen or so other boys. Desks line the pale walls, messy with books and papers. I move in between the haphazard chairs, looking at things, asking who sits where. This is lung-shrinking small talk. The bones of my sternum ache with embarrassment. I wish I could shut up, yet I can’t seem to stop buzzing like a bee trapped in a glass, until, finally, he and I are sitting on chairs near each other. He looks ill. My brain is a lump of dough and I can’t move my mouth to say one more word. He bends over and put his elbows on his knees, runs his hands through his hair.
Shit, he says.
And then he looks up and asks if I want to go out with him.
The awkwardness of saying yes is profound enough that I feel like running from the room, as if I’m insulted. He has revealed so much in this one question – still, it’s too painful to admit I like him.
Suddenly, unable to bear any more, I say yes – quickly and sharply. That one word releases everything.
We are silent, but relaxing into the softness of our feelings, which now lay open between us, comforting. It’s an oozy sort of warmth that begins to envelop me, bringing a need for contact. He takes my hand and I feel his fingers in mine. The thrill of this – the key that has enabled us to touch – is so delightful I want to giggle. Now, we are kissing, and it’s adulthood.
It’s like an elegant room this feeling – grownup because it’s not filled with toys. The walls are beyond my realm of vision so they appear black and yet, standing in that blackness isn’t frightening because the feeling is so exquisite. Where I am, the light shines powerfully. Even though all around is in shadow – unknown – I can bear it all. I am happy to be here, in this nameless place, exploring. Walking and walking into endless black, feeling my way, isn’t frightening – as it would be if I were in the dark, bumping into things. I don’t feel trepidation. It’s a luminous, gifted feeling. I am in the light of laughter.
It reminds me of the writing process, this falling into your feelings and being engulfed by them. The blank page might be the possibility of love – at first terrifying, but if you give yourself to it, what pleasures! But just as there was a long period of frustration in my after school drama group before I started getting the parts I wanted, there was something similar with my writing – having a need to tell stories and yet not knowing how. Finding my writer’s voice was like getting that key when I was thirteen. I had wanted to run from the room, but something made me stay, made me say yes. After that, a door to a whole new arena of life was unlocked. Just as the stage and the act of love drew me in, so did the page, offering boundless space and never-ending possibility.
I was in a cafe the other day. Two girls sat in armchairs a few meters away.
It’s so annoying, one of them said. I mean, he quotes from books he hasn’t actually read and for his last piece of work he got seventy-eight!
How? the other girl said.
Ugh, he’s just really good at writing essays.
There was a wistful silence and after a moment they both agreed how hard it was to write.
I know what I think, one of the girls said. I just can’t put it into words.
Me too, her friend told her. I mean, it’s hard enough to write down the argument, without having to put it all into this fancy, intelligent language.
Writing isn’t easy – the page may be limitless, but that can make the idea of filling it a little daunting. We only make it harder if we try to fill it with something we’re not.
It’s often in sections of description where I find my students attempting to be beyond what they are. They read exuberant prose and feel they have to mimic it. But if you copy, the words come out without heart, and really it’s the heart that gives prose its glory.
Thomas Hardy speaks through the wind and rain. His landscapes hold emotion. He feels every green – from the lightest shade of lime, to the dark, almost shadow black of foliage under a half moon. He isn’t trying to be lyrical, he simply feels for everything he sees and tells it like it is. Words don’t have to have four syllables to impress. We’re all unique individuals: simply writing our version of the world is enough to make readers take a breath, because until that moment such a perspective was unknown to them.
But, how do I know? my students ask. How do I know if this is my voice?
How do you know you’re in love, I tell them.
When we allow ourselves to love we move as if on air – everything becomes effortless. Truth is ceaseless energy – just us and air and no resistance, like those couples in the supermarket, giggling over apples and mangos, unaware of anyone else in the supermarket. If we are driven by how we want to appear or be perceived, we might start big, but often we fall flat after a few paragraphs. Writing in a voice other than our own is false love. Our doubts will let us know if that’s the case, which is often why we don’t want to listen to them.
I spent months in a relationship, running away from my doubts, trying to take a deep breath and get over it – to appreciate what I had. But it was fear – fear of having to say, it’s over; fear of having to start all over again. It’s the same with writing. If it’s not going well we don’t like to admit that to ourselves.
While I was trying to ignore my misgivings about this relationship, I began to write a story about a couple, living in a cramped flat. The boyfriend gives the girlfriend a bonsai tree. Not only does she feel burdened by the responsibility of looking after the plant, she can’t bear the times she has to take the special scissors from the drawer and cut it back. The story ends with the boyfriend coming back to an empty flat. He walks out onto the balcony and sees that the bonsai has been planted in the wide border of the communal garden below.
Doubt is often where we find our true selves, if we’re brave enough to listen. It speaks to us, guides us. The only fearful thing about doubt is the way we dread it. Take that away and it’s only a voice, offering advice from deep within us where our guts lie, feeling the pulse of our heart, knowing truths. Doubt can feed damp into a relationship so that it starts to rot and crumble, just as doubt can ruin a piece of work unless it’s brought out into the open to air. For love to flourish you have to be yourself, and it’s the same with writing. When I’m honest about what’s really on my mind I feel liberated – I feel as though I’ve removed a blockage and the words rush in.
When we find our voice we are like kids in love: opened up, feeling each nook and cranny of our inner selves with little hindrance of self consciousness. We are not trying to be fancy, or intelligent, we are simply asking ourselves: is this what I want to say? The blank page can be like a kiss – a silent exploration where we go by feeling alone, listening to our thoughts, eyes closed, falling deeper and deeper into the experience, surfacing with the right word, then moving onto the next.
Beautfully written–the wonder of memory and writing are they make such wonderful traveling companions, so long as one has a book to read in between the moments of silence in which there is so much.>KB
Yes, memory and writing are such a match. I agree about the books – where would I be without my reading material! Thanks so much for stopping by and letting me know your thoughts.
I always start with my first sentence. Then develop from there. Ok, maybe develop is too big of a word in my case. I just let it flow freely. Of course, I end up with bad pieces of writing many times. I follow one rule that is: Keep writing and write every day! I find so much in common between the writing life and the religious life. You just got to have faith!
Thank you for this post! I loved it.
I love first sentences. Often I’ll roam a bookshop just reading the first lines of books. I’m with you on the faith thing – without that there’s no way to get through the dark days when the words are coming slowly or not at all. I’m so glad you loved this post – makes the writing of it worthwhile!
Enjoyed reading it. Beautiful. Thanks. Jo
I really appreciate your kind words! Blogging is so wonderful in that you can be on your own, working on something, and then you put it out there and have lovely feedback from people. 😉
Wonderfully true, and beautifully written.
Ah, to banish doubt! If I could have the same welcoming approach to doubt that you espouse, my life would be so much easier!
I like the comparison between new love and a new writing project. So very apt. ; )
Thanks, Anne! I think my approach to doubt is welcoming, as you say, because I’ve stopped calling it doubt, which can have a bit of a negative connotation. I call it information, which is less intimidating. And actually, when you give doubt the sort of careful, fixed attention that you give information, it stops feeling so prickly and uncomfortable and becomes a sort of gentle whisper.
Glad you thought the comparison worked. I knew that I wanted to write about voice and the blank page this week, but I didn’t know my ‘way in’ till I went to supermarket and yet again saw all the young lovers and remembered that I wanted to write about them too. I also came across the Twilight movie on TV last week, which got me thinking about some of my first relationships 😉
Always a pleasure to see you here!
I wish there was a “love” button. I love this post. Thank you for writing it and expressing your emotions – they’re beautiful and perfectly captured.
Aw – you make me blush! I’m sure writing is only as good as how easily people can connect to it – so your understanding is key. Thanks for stopping by and saying something.
*Tosses his hat in the air and applauds. The hat lands back on his head and he cheers.*
A long post and no typos at all! I am impressed.
Best post I’ve read in a long, long time.
I wish I had a teacher like you. 😉
Do stick around – with applause like that. Your hat is good for my ego!!
So profound! I especially love your last sentence–so poetic and so true.
I’m glad about that last sentence. When I write, I pour a load of ideas down, then I start rearranging them. Sometimes, there will be a paragraph or a sentence, which has to come out from where it was – but not necessarily out altogether. I open another document and put it there. I was getting to the end of the piece, thinking: I could really do with a line here. Then I remembered to check to see if there were any things floating unused on the other document. A few bits were left, which led to the last sentence. 😉
I “craft” my pieces together much in the same way.
For me, if there was a nail, you hit it on the head. Thank you for that.
Oh, thank you! I sit down to write these pieces with the hope that people out there will get it. To have hit the nail on the head for you is a great compliment.
You do it for me! I really like this piece it enlightened me. My fiance’ always talks about finding his narrative voice for his writings and it made me think he will find his. Gave me chills and hope for us all! Thank you!
Wow, what a lovely message – a great start to the day to think I might have enlightened someone out there. There is a lot of hope for us – and especially if we have support, which it sounds like your fiance has from you. Thanks for much for taking the time to write.
Thank you! I really enjoyed this piece, especially the voice. I heard you!
🙂 I think when a writer gets the voice – a lot more people can hear. It’s so wonderful to be listened to. Thank you!
Lovely! Really like what you say about the writing process, falling into your feelings and being engulfed by them. Yes.
It’s such a wonderful pat on the back when people relate to what you say. Firstly, you don’t feel quite so alone in your process, and secondly you can think to yourself that, this time, you managed to make yourself clear. Thanks so much!
This is just a stunning post. What more can I say. I even feel encouraged myself but that is not why I love it….it’s the whole thing but especially the bonsai story part and being true to self and allowing doubt…such great wisdom Gabriela.
Gosh – when someone refers to your thoughts as wisdom that’s rather an uplifting experience! Thank you! I’m thrilled that you found so much that was useful here – makes the work I do this end really worthwhile. It’s always lovely when you stop by 😉
The best writing to me are the ones that uses simple words to create beautiful sentences with a strong underlying message that has got great depth. This is the one I am referring to.
What a lovely comment. This is what I try to do – less focus on fancy words, and more focus on really saying what I mean, which hopefully allows a message to come through. So glad you got that. I feel lucky this week, with all the feedback to have such appreciative readers. Enjoy your weekend 😉
I have finally read and absorbed your words once again in awe of how you do write.
I agree with you and with what Gotaste has said it’s the simple words that can more often bring out feelings and emotions, word by word, sentence by sentence until it develops and those words take on a life of their own to bring about a piece of poetry or prose or a story..and you fair lady are the story teller and one that shows us that it can be done. We may have our own style of writing..but that is what makes us all so unique and wonderful. Everyone of your posts displays that and as usual it was a pleasure to read…thank you xx
As always your comment brings such an enormous smile to my face! I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. I used to make my friends sit quietly while I told them ghost stories, and I would get really angry with them if they began to talk during the story!
What a fantastic and refreshing post – a pleasure to read 😀 The analogy to the kiss is pure perfection!
I’m glad you liked it so much, and especially the analogy. It’s always great when someone understands the way you see something and gets something out of it too. Thanks for commenting.
VERY nicely done. Don’t stop.
Love the study room confession scene. “Sternum aching with embarrassment” is my favorite depiction.
Thanks for stopping by – I’m glad to have turned such an uncomfortable moment into something enjoyable for others!