I do quite a lot of work with writers. When I first set up this teaching and mentoring service, I thought we’d mostly be talking about technical stuff. I started as a writing coach because a friend who wanted to write rang me up and asked me a whole boatload of questions. I answered them as if they were the ABC, which, to me, they were. If you do anything for thirty years, you know the nuts and bolts, the bells and whistles. If I could answer all her questions, I thought, I could do that for other people. And so I did.
What I’ve discovered, as I’ve gone along, is that the technical stuff is the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Any fool can make a character arc or rev a narrative drive. That is, as Truman Capote once said, not writing but typing. The hard part is to go deep into the places where the wild things are. The hard part is to sing out loud. The hard part is to run your own joyous, painful, defiant race.
And to do that, you have to face your fears. It’s fear that stops people writing well and often stops them writing at all. That’s what I tell my clients. And my God, they are brave. They take this on the chin and they fling open the door the the Cupboard of Doom, where all their gnarly terrors are waiting for them.
I’ve just been working with one such writer, and I am left breathless by her courage. We’ve only lately started working together, and already she is trusting me with her most profound self. I feel a sense of exhilaration – for her, through her – because I know that she is going to be able to write a book of glory.
Then I stop, and reflect. I smile a rueful smile. I’m so good at doing this for other people. I know my stuff, and I can offer it to them, and it works. What I often forget is to do it for myself.
When this lockdown started, I had a grand idea. I’d write this diary. I’d write it for the world. (Grand, at this point, shades into grandiose.) I’d write about where the wild things were and the people out there with their own wild things would feel less alone. I’d not only record this bizarre moment in history, but I would do a public service. I’d hit the chiming note of truth so that the Dear Readers could find their own truth.
I can hardly even believe that I’ve written all that down. What an admission. What was I thinking? How was I going to morph into Oprah and the Dalai Lama and Joan Didion, all in one great leap forward? Why was it my job to make everything better?
Inevitably, I ran smack into the wall of fear. It was a bit of a wall of shame, too. I’d done the thing I so often do, which is to set my own bar way, way too high. And so I got frightened. I didn’t do what I tell my brave writers to do; I didn’t face my own fears. I told myself the old, sad stories. Today is too boring to write about. What is the point of writing about the stupid lockdown? I’m having a crappy moment, and I can’t burden my poor readers with that. And who cares, anyway?
So I stopped.
An old friend of mine once described his experience of mild depression as waking up every morning and thinking, ‘What’s the fucking point?’ I had a massive attack of What’s the Fucking Point. This was an idiotic idea and I should do something more useful. The terror voices told me that I had nothing to bring to this party, that I was a study in self-indulgence, that I was just gazing at my own navel, in public.
The secret with the fear is to tell people about it. Write it out, talk it out. It’s a frightened thing itself, and it does not survive the daylight. It thrives in the dark. It likes a dim, dank cave in which to tell its tales.
Let it out, and see what it says, and watch it lose its power in the sunshine. That’s what I forgot to do.
So here I am again, a little bashed and bruised and chipped about the edges. Here I am, facing my frailties, writing my flaws. The lovely thing is that nobody has to read this. You beautiful humans, out there in the mad world, are grown-ups. You are creatures of agency. You can turn the page.
I can only write what is honest and true. I’ve never been any good at faking it. When I get frightened of the truth, I stop writing altogether. But the glorious thing is that you – you discerning, bold readers – can handle the truth. Sometimes I lose sight of that.
I’ve been working flat out all morning, so I haven’t looked at the news, or at Twitter, or at the internet. I have no idea whether we have been hit by some new catastrophe or whether the dear old country is still trundling on. I don’t know who is cross about the Prime Minister or whether Piers Morgan has enraged the Twittersphere (which he seems to do every day now) or what the World Health Organisation has said. All I know, sitting in my quiet room, is that we are all in this for the long haul, and each of us has to adjust in our own way. I suspect that it is not a blip, but a life changer. The optimist in me hopes that some of that change may be fine – more kindness perhaps, more of an appreciation of the things that really matter. More love and community instead of competition and cash. Who knows? It could happen.
There is a profound silence in this room. Outside my window, Scotland is still. The wind has dropped. The birds are taking their midday rest. (Where do they go, when they are not singing? Perhaps they are busy building their nests and cherishing their young.) The sky is low and white and the trees are just unfurling into their gaudy spring green. In the silence, I face my fears and see that they do not kill me. I am not sure they make me stronger, in that glib, Nietzschean way, but if I look calmly into their beady eyes I can get their measure and not be overwhelmed.
I can do what my brilliant writers do. I, too, can be brave.