When I was fifteen, I wanted, with a desperate force, to fall in love.
This desire was mirrored over a decade later – though it wasn’t love I was urgently wishing for, but a career as a writer.
In the course of my history studies, I’ve grown to like the archaic usage of the word without. ‘He thought he felt the fresh air from without the castle walls.’
It means outside, as well as suggesting the absence of something. Feeling my way along the path of these definitions is like my journey as a writer.
I see my desire to fall in love at fifteen as being outside or without myself. It came from the influence of pop songs: dancing to A-ha’s ‘Take on me’ and fantasising about Morten Harket. It wasn’t so much the lyrics, but the uplifting sensation of the opening keyboard sequence – I felt dreams could come true. Then there’s the deep note Morten hits when he begins the chorus, full of gentle, loving masculinity – I fell in love with the person behind that fragile note, and from then on needed someone to feel the same way about me.
I became obsessed with a boy who played bass in a band that did Beetles covers. I named my diary after him, and began recording moments I’d seen him around the school, or the long despair I felt at a day without a single sighting. I concocted scenarios in which he’d finally become aware of my existence. A favourite was to put myself in his path as he’s walking to lessons. I pretend to faint so that he’s forced to catch me as I slump. He lowers my body down to the ground, my head in his lap.
Alone, I’d enact the moment I come around, lying across pillows, rising up slightly, opening my eyes and saying, oh! in a perfect combination of irresistibility and abstraction.
After lunch one afternoon, I announced to my friends that I’d stolen the boy’s sachet of butter.
For some reason I can’t recall, it was someone’s duty to sit by the conveyor belt where we stacked our trays, and collect unused butter sachets in an old ice-cream tub.
I felt the jerk in my heart as the boy approached, watching his hand as he took up his butter and dropped it into the tub in my lap. I stared at the golden rectangle, lying with all the others, until he’d moved out of sight, and then I snatched it up and put it in my pocket.
My friends were listening to this, their expressions beginning to come loose. Perhaps if the story ended there, they might have been able to bear it. But, I then peeled away the golden wrapping and ate the butter.
I’d been oblivious of my friend’s worry. It was only now, when they sat me down and gathered around – a hand on my knee, one on my shoulder – that I saw their concern for my sanity.
It was clear that I was very in love, they said, but I had to be realistic. How could I hope to be this boy’s girlfriend when we’d never even spoken? He didn’t even know I existed.
It requires a great deal of motivation to write. But how do we inspire ourselves?
On the cover of The Sunday Times Style magazine this Sunday was an image of a woman in hotpants and a cropped halterneck top, bending over to do up her roller skates, of all things. She looks over her shoulder with an expression of abundant sexual desire. Her soft, blonde curls tickle the tops of her breasts. Beneath is the headline: the fasting diet.
Am I inspired to write from a place within; or am I looking at an image in a magazine, motivated from without? The latter reminds me of that anxious form of desire I had at fifteen where what I wanted was based on a need that both pained and drove me, and would ultimately prove exhausting.
Faced with the cruel but necessary ‘advice’ from my friends, I decided the cause of their concern had to be addressed, and fast. The boy and I needed to speak.
I found his number in the school directory and phoned him up in the holidays. I put on my best Australian accent, which I felt was the most sustainable one I could do, and asked to speak to him when his mother answered. There was a longish wait, during which my armpits grew sodden. And then I heard his voice.
Hi! I said, all excitement. How’s it going?!
There was a pause.
Who is this?
It’s Cody! I gushed. We met in the pub last night.
There was another pause and then: um…no.
Oh my god, how embarrassing! I think I’ve got the wrong number, I screamed, throwing the receiver down. I felt deeply disgusted with myself, but also strangely exhilarated.
My friends thought this was quite funny, when I reported back, but still tried to persuade me of the futility of my mission.
You’re right, I said, wincing a little when they brought my attention to the fact that although we’d spoken, we hadn’t really spoken. Then we all got sidetracked by why I’d chosen an Australian accent, and who was Cody?
Just as I wasn’t able to speed up the process of love, I try to be patient with my writing. It’s not something to be manufactured. I have to be myself – come from within. If I wanted to be that sexually voracious blonde in the roller skates, then I would surely be running from the pain of the realisation that I wasn’t, at the same time as I was trying to ‘be’. Wanting something because I like the idea of it – to write, to love – is not the same as just writing, or loving. How can I do either without myself? Self is not just a person’s essential being, but also the way in which we differ from others. If I try to write in the absence of my self, motivated by something outside of me, I not only lose touch with who I am, but the qualities that will make my work unique.
One evening at school, I went down to the music department. It was dark, and I was just walking, feeling a deep sense of sadness. I came in the front entrance and heard a loving tune. I followed the sound to the main room where concerts were held. Sitting at the grand piano was the boy whose butter I’d eaten.
I went in, sitting a few rows up with my hands in my lap. He played for some time. Then he stopped and came and sat next to me. I didn’t know what to say. ‘That was amazing’ seemed a bit corny. It wasn’t that I felt the pressure of the moment – the fact that, after all the months of wanting, he was going to hear my voice – I just wanted to say something real. I was too tired for games any more.
Do you know that thing you can do with bananas? I asked him.
He squinted at me for a second and shook his head.
You cut the bottom off, and then you look to see if there’s a Y there or just a blob, which is a no.
He nodded and thought about it.
Then I said: whenever I do that, I ask a question about you.
I didn’t feel embarrassed, or stupid, I simply felt the relief of truth, finally.
We were together for a year and a half. He was a few years older and the last months of our relationship were conducted by letter, while he was at university. He was like a photo on the cover of a magazine, promising something, which I went for forcefully, and which I then discovered couldn’t make me happy, because it was only an idea of something and not real.
After I broke up with him, he wrote me letters full of hatred, incongruously on the same neon orange stationary that he’d written letters full of love. He called me a child. But that’s what I was. It was only tragic for him because he’d fallen in love, and I had only been playing at love.
For a long time I played at being a writer.
One night, nearly a decade ago, I was lying in bed with Dan – someone who I was beginning, for the first time, to love from the inside out. I began to tell him of the house I’d always seen in my mind. It’s mostly wooden, squat – the walls made up of long stretches of glass. Curtains blow in the wind. The view is of the sea as seen from a high cliff.
He asked me what I’d do there.
I don’t know, I told him. I’d probably have to be a writer.
Get on it, then, he said.
That house was my magazine pinup, my motivation, yet not the soul of my desire. I began to write for that mysterious dwelling on the cliff. Then I was writing because I was failing at writing and I needed success. Need. Another ‘without’.
I liked the idea of that house. Now, I think I’d go mad there, so isolated. I realise also, that in all the times I’ve seen that image, the sun has never been shining. The sky is always bleached-out silver. Melancholy. Like need can be.
I’d like to be able to write from the inside out every day – to sit at my desk and feel free of all the external motivations that each bring a dose of pain, a needful ache. But I also think that to want something like that, which is a form of perfection, is going to hinder me in so many ways. It’s yet another version of aiming for the ideal.
I think there will be many shifts, as I continue to write, each day, moving more and more inside. Though, there are also the times I move backwards – sometimes even finding myself entirely without myself again: all idiosyncratic qualities gone, and replaced by a consuming desire to be someone other than me. But this isn’t quite back at the beginning – because I’ve trodden a path out of here once before. I just have to find the opening and walk it again – back to where I’d got to. In these times, I will retrace my steps patiently, because to rush can lead to states of denial: where I make myself believe I’m on the path because, let’s say, I’m having difficulty locating it. Truthfulness is important.
For years, I would sit in sessions with my writing group, surrounding myself in denial.
Yes, but… I would often say to a comment.
‘I found your main character quite elusive.’
‘Yes, but, I want her to be elusive!’
The fact was, I was defending myself from having to rewrite the story, because that would mean looking at how I managed it in the first place, which wasn’t something I knew. How can I write a second draft, when I have no idea how I wrote the first?
Then there was the day I grasped the importance of the centre of a story – the within – the point from which it’s written. I saw that my writing group’s confusion at, say, the ending, was also my own confusion: the centre of the story was currently without my understanding. What I had to do was work at getting the story’s centre as close to my own truthfulness as possible. This happens in steps – each draft drawing closer, until I get from without understanding to a point inside, a place of compassion and insight – and then I am with the story and with myself.