When I started the original lockdown diary, almost a year ago, I was going to write everything. I was going to write the world. I was going to write all the incredible humans and all the shocking events and all the doubts and hopes and fears. I would write it all.
Then, when I started again in 2021, I decided this would no longer be the rather gloomy-sounding Lockdown Diary, but a Year of Beautiful Things. I would record all the lovelinesses, and the beauty, and the moments of glad grace. (Of course secretly I would write the world as well, because I am wildly ambitious in the the privacy of my own mind.)
And none of that happened. I kept running into old, tumbled, stone walls. I didn’t know what to write. There was too much, or too little. There were too many things which made no sense or which broke my heart or which baffled my fogged mind.
Write it down, write it down, said the eager voices in my head. There’s no point, said the sad, tired voices.
I’d have days where I was just keeping my little ship afloat, when the months and months of uncertainty and trouble weighed heavily on my heart and I did not have the spirit left to type.
And then I’d get really weird notions stuck in my head. If I had a good day – and I’m working extremely hard to make the days as good as I can – I felt shy about writing that down. It felt as if I was boasting. I knew so many people were having terrible days, and how could I possibly record smiles and dazzling sunshine and a lovely new client? That would be rubbing people’s nose in it.
If I had a rotten day, I thought I couldn’t write that down, because I would be a bore. And I’d be ungrateful too, because I have so much luck, with Scotland outside my door, and kind horses, and high skies, and blue mountains. How dare I complain?
I did all the things, in other words, that I tell my writers not to do.
I’m good at teaching writing. I love being able to pass on all the things I have learned in my thirty years of experience. And one of the most important principles I teach my students is: never, ever think about your audience. You can’t second-guess your readers, because you have no earthly idea what they are going to love and what they are going to hate. Half the time, they couldn’t tell you themselves. (Think of all the times you have picked up a book, expecting to adore it, and found yourself oddly deflated by the time you get to Chapter Three.) All you can do as a writer is write for one Dear Reader. Sometimes that reader will be your own true self; sometimes it will be a dream reader; sometimes it will be someone you love and admire. You write for that single person, whoever she may be.
I know this to be true. I’ve used it for many, many books. It always works. And yet I tumbled into the elephant trap of imagining a Norma Desmond crowd, out there in the dark. ‘They,’ I told myself, ‘won’t want to hear that.’ My fingers would crab and my brain would stall. ‘They,’ said the cross voices in my head, drunk on gin and terror, ‘will find that pointless and useless and feckless.’
So I stopped.
I think of all the events that won’t be written. There will not be a whisper of the surreal impeachment of the President, or the storming of the Capitol, or the man who became internet-famous by doing a Zoom call with a cat filter on. (‘I’m not a cat!’) I shall not have recorded the Brexit fish scandal or the climbing Covid numbers or whatever it is that is going on in the strange civil war within the Scottish Nationalist Party. (Nobody knows.) I shan’t have set down how sad I felt when Christopher Plummer died, because the sound of him singing Edelweiss in the The Sound of Music was the sound of my childhood, and it felt as if something elemental had gone. Or the sorrow of the gallant Captain Tom Moore finally succumbing to the virus, when it seemed as if nothing in the world could stop him.
There will be no mention of the nine days of snow when the world went white and all my energies were devoted to stumping through the drifts to get water and hay to the horses. There will be a blank where I wanted to remember a gale of laughter with an old friend, or the holy feeling of satisfaction when I got a client actually writing, or a story told to me which was so magnificent and moving that I started crying on the Zoom.
I did want to write all that down, and I didn’t, and I am slightly regretful. Our stories are ourselves. When my mum died, I had no regrets. We had said all the love. We had repaired, hole by hole, all the gaps in our relationship. We spent the last six years of her life being those most lovely of things: friends. But still, to this day, I often wish for one more story. I wish I had asked her for more stories. She’s taken them with her, and I’ll never know them now.
And I think, as I write those words – there are so many lost stories now. That is one of the tragedies of this pandemic.
But, for all this stopping and starting, for all the doubts and frets, for all the sudden crashes and hittings of the wall, I am here now. One way or another, I keep showing up. That, I think, is the secret of life. You keep showing up. You might be a bit late, and you might be a bit muddled, and you might have forgotten something, but you pitch up. You keep coming back. You keep moving forward.
My friend Jay said something lovely to me this morning. He said, ‘Just hold on. Just hold fast.’ I think he’s right. I felt better, just hearing those words. Every single person I know is hitting their own wall at the moment; the sturdiest, most stoical souls are paddling hard to keep their little ships afloat. Yet we – you, me, all of us – hold on and hold fast. And somehow, somehow, keep showing up.