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.