Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Life drawing for the terrified

Life drawing for the terrified was the name of one of the classes I found listed in a booklet of creative courses and assorted activities for adults.

I had picked it up hoping to find a safe and anodyne valve for me to give vent to certain urges, a methadone prescription to my heroin addiction if you like. Perhaps you could try painting, I said to myself. Yoga certainly didn’t do it. Pilates was boring, pottery-making too messy.

The title of the class made me smile. It was the hyperbole, of course:  what’s so terrifying about drawing, for heaven’s sake? But then my friend, answer me this:  what is so terrifying about writing, the secret, shameful addiction I was trying to overcome but that was still giving me the shakes?

I never joined the class. Fuck life drawing, I mean, let’s be serious. But today I want to try and answer that question, before courage fails me one more time. 

So here we go. Stop vacuuming now. You’ve already rinsed all the dishes. Sock pairing? Really? Sit down and write.

It’s time. What are you afraid of? The worst is guaranteed to happen, the hour and the day written on some cosmic stone. You will die and after a few short years no one will be alive who will remember you. No glory and no shame. Nothingness.

But there’s a here, still, and a now, still, in which your thoughts can be turned into written words, recorded, fixed for a fleeting moment, one hundred years or however long the digital storage system currently in use will last.

No papyrus for you, no faded actual words, on ancient actual paper. So, you see, there is no need for those words to be worthy of immortality. Besides, many a laundry list has unaccountably survived, emerged into our modern hands through the dark tunnels of history even as the entire contents of the library of Alexandria were lost. The stele from which the Rosetta stone came off was after all some boring administrative decree. Hardly Aristotle.

Turn off the news. Stop humming that same stupid tune in a loop (which, by the way drives your dear husband crazy). Close that fridge door. Now. If the answer is ‘Why, more cheese!’ the question is not worth asking. Sit down and write.

Do it for yourself, as you did when you were eight years old and you embarked on the first of a number of super-secret, personal diaries. Two and a half decades of it in fact. The point was not whether you had enough that was new or original or dramatic to say - the point was to record what was going through your head, what you were feeling, that being the only consciousness you were ever going to inhabit, the only self you would ever be.

When and how did it happen? Why did I start living my live unexamined? What shyness, what ghastly self-consciousness or self-loathing stopped me wanting to pay attention to that internal voice, to record its wanderings, its enchantments and its discontents?

I wrote, furiously, through my teens, twenties and early thirties, through many adventures, a deep depression and constant loneliness. In fact I wrote three book-length things that I sometimes absentmindedly call books. 

I only got round to upload one on Amazon last year, a huge act of defiance towards my current cowed, voiceless middle-aged self. I wrote and wrote and then. And then I stopped. I don’t know why.

All I remember was the notebooks were getting smaller, their covers more elaborate but the entries fewer and farther between. Then nothing. 

I stopped annotating books, storing away clever phrases from articles, cutting out pictures and filing half crumpled scraps of paper filled with doodles and urgent, single underlined words which were the secret passwords to a short story, a chapter, a diary entry, a poem which I may or may not write. 

I stopped recording dreams (an activity that, in truth, I only ever engaged in for one year and became too bewildering and anxiety-inducing to continue). I stopped noting down conversations overheard or ideas of effective ‘scenes’ between characters I already knew or had not yet invented.

Look, I’m a still a journalist, sort of. I write the occasional column. I blog, as one does, well, as everybody does, just more infrequently. I obsessively update my ‘status’ on a variety of social media platforms with all sorts of witty and profound little asides. A recent job had me penning op-eds in other people’s names. 

I do all these things, constantly, all the time, and sometimes, absentmindedly, I describe them as ‘writing’. But I don’t write anymore. I don’t know why.

The answer I seek might be a few paragraphs up. It has to do with the internal monologue, the voice (not Voices, you understand, nothing like that), and the difference between hearing it, which I can’t help, not while I’m alive and sentient, and choosing to pay attention to it, which is what the process of writing essentially is, a conscious choice.

I have often heard it said about some of my favourite writers (often by means of their own pen) that they have no choice but write. Writing is who they are, not a means to an end, but their way to exist in the world. All the great diarists share this marvellous curse, this great, consoling affliction - Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Mantell and many countless others I love. 

Whether they simply pour it into actual diaries (there always are diaries, they are the shadow, the footprint, the fingerprint of the writer) or into reportage, novels, plays, what's constant is the writing. Not the publishing, not the being known for or paid for it, not even the accomplishing of final products that can be given a name, a definition - my latest poem, my new short story. 

Writing is, in essence, always flow and fragment. From time to time we hack from it a more solid, denser object and call it Rosetta, or War and Peace. But don’t be fooled, the writing is an endless tune, thoughts in a loop, with no final chapter or clever resolution.

Now, the affliction I described, the having to write which makes people into writers, whether anyone notices or not, means having to pay attention to the internal voice.

My internal voice, my stream of consciousness has a mean streak in it, you see? What I finally seem to have learnt in time is to tune it out, for long stretches at a time and in fact for long as I possibly can. 

The voice, make no mistake, takes no notice of my clever wheeze, and continues to lash me mercilessly whenever it can. But I sure trained myself out of sitting in quiet rooms actively trying to listen to it.

With time and maturity and a greater awareness of the world around me, the voice has also changed - for the worse - and I have duly strengthened my self-preserving mechanism to tune it firmly out. 

The voice is not just filled with contempt at my failings. It is no longer just a grief-stricken, panicked commentary on the immensity of my disappointments, the mediocrity of my aspirations, the circularity of my setbacks, the basic the fallacy of all my choices. Mixed in with that, and with the wonder, the love and the excitement it is still faithfully chronicling, the voice increasingly drones on about the horror of the world we live in.  

Now, as I do live in this world, as I’m still here, now and not shut away in a cave, I am aware of the beheadings and the mass rapes, the hammers taken to priceless artefacts in desert cities. I know about climate change and people trafficking and the slave labour hidden in any object I see or buy. 

I often find myself talking about the slow motion collapse of the European dream, the annihilation of Syria, the pauperization of Greece. 

I shake my head at the misery of each new devastating earthquake and, as people around me start dying of awful diseases, I dutifully make donations and sign up to charities which attest to the horror of this world in all its grim glory.

I am more than aware of it, believe me, and the voice droning on and on about it, almost as the expense of anything else, doesn’t help. 

So I’m discovering that, on top of my general policy of avoidance, I’d do anything to keep that sense of revulsion and powerlessness at bay.
I'd do anything not to have to think about it any longer than for a few seconds at the time.

At first I was not good enough for the world. Now I still suck and the world is black chaos without sense or meaning, without an arc of progress or any hope of justice to soften the blow.  I must fear, at some level, that life once examined may drive me finally mad. Life drawing for the terrified, indeed.

So I hum out loud, eat another slice of cheese, drink more wine, rinse those glasses, pair those socks. I don’t want to think about it, listen to those thoughts long enough to write, to write anything.

I wish there could be a way to get it back, that nice, innocent compulsion to listen and to record, to write for the sake of writing. I wish it were so, as I’m beginning to suspect that I too define myself that way and that therefore I have lived less as my truer self in the past ten years.

I have found lasting love and better jobs in those years, I have felt much safer, better looked after, more prosperous and secure. But less like me. 

My truer self has faded to the point where only the stitches of the pattern show, the neuroses, the obsessions and the anxieties - or if you prefer my laugher, my predilections, or certain turns of phrase of mine- while all colour and shape seems gone. No amount of painting, hill walking or pottery seems likely to bring it back.

I’m 46. Everything aches. Everything, I mean it. I’m growing physically larger and larger, making cool, disdainful detachment a harder pose to pull, as I waddle, sweating and clumsy, my mother frowning back at me from every mirrored surface. 

It’s also somewhat harder to hide, aside from the virtual hiding of the not-really-writing. 

What am I waiting for? Really, what is the point of wasting any more time pretending?

Maybe the answer is to start seeing this life, this one life I have, what’s left of it, as less of a personal business and more of an objectively interesting experience, like when I was eight I suppose, and the wonder/self-consciousness ratio was at a healthier setting.

Maybe what allows those writers to take note of the voice, to feel the fear and write it down anyway, is a choice to see life not as a trial, not as a short yet endless ego-balancing , a face-saving, face-losing see-saw, the careful, exhausting recalibration of desires and dreams in the face of one’s cruel mediocrity and of the gentle passing of time. 

Maybe they manage life through a viewfinder, maybe the pen keeps the smoke and the smell at bay. Life as reportage, as unflinching, unblinking, unblushing copy, the detached, bemused account of a passionately feeling observer. Horror included, warts and all. The writing it down, the putting it ‘to paper’ as it were, an exorcism too, perhaps.

And I realise now (or perhaps I remember?) that re-writing and re-reading is what used to quieten the voice awhile. Listening back to myself as expressed ‘on paper’ silenced it, for a while, giving me a brief, but perfectly dependable and repeatable experience of completion, of what I still, absentmindedly, call happiness.