Me and Her

Here’s a piece from my before translation Swedish column in the Goteborgs-Posten in the early spring.

It’s spring again. I know that because the frogs are furiously at it in the pond and the faintest of greens is appearing on the birch tree. There’s even a hint of sun after the Cambridge morning mist has passed. Why am I sunk in gloom, barely able to get out of bed? Certainly not before morning has almost passed into afternoon. Why am I dreading the passing of the week because it means there’s another one in store? Waking in the morning with a concrete block of dread inside my chest weighing me down? Looking forward only to the moment in the evening, much too early, when I turn off the light and that brief startling relief that I am in the dark and can let myself, with chemical assistance, fall asleep – until I wake every couple of hours during the night?

Well, chemistry might answer those questions. I’ve been here often enough before, both with and without real life events to trigger the condition. It’s my character, my type, my destiny, the way the molecules fell and the cookie crumbled at the fertilization of the egg that became me. The blackness falls over me regularly, although, in the last twenty years during which I’ve been medicated, usually better controlled and for shorter periods than at present. It lurks in the ingredients of my brain recipe. There’s also what they call environmental factors. A weird childhood that caused one psychiatrist to say I was lucky I haven’t turned out psychotic. I’d be crazy not to be a depressive, another said to me. In addition, there’s the death of four people, three who I’d known since my teenage years, one my oldest friend, two of them and the arrangement of their funerals within the last four months. And still the deaths continue and the past is chipped away.

You can mix and match the chemical and environmental reasons every which way, or take just the one or the other. It doesn’t matter, there are very few choices in the management of this thing, even if you include alternative therapies, whatever the cause. I’m too self-aware and armoured, apparently, for talk therapy to be much use. CBT, even if I had the energy for list-making, box-ticking, and contract writing, doesn’t inspire me with any confidence. So only sitting through it and medication remain. I’ve gone for medication – new and different anti-depressants – because I know that sitting through it is not only agony, but dangerous, as well as very difficult for other people to deal with. Actually, the medication option includes sitting through it, because of the way that antidepressants famously don’t start to work for a month or so, and often make you feel worse, with mind numbing side effects. And then, of course, it might turn out that they are not the right pills for you. So start again, another month of sitting through it. At some point, one is too old for the wait to seem worth it.

Another question is how does it come about that I am writing this, and have written a couple of long articles since the dark settled over me? That’s two questions really. First, I seem to have a ‘writing head’ that clicks on when I set my hands on a keyboard. Writing has nothing to do with the daily living me, even if it uses the daily living me as a conduit. It’s a mystery to me, really strange as I watch myself do it, but the psychiatrist I saw said that she thought I’d probably always been ‘disassociated’ and wasn’t surprised that I could write while I could hardly talk or move. I didn’t go into it any deeper than that. It rang true to me, but I don’t want to think about it too much. I don’t like mystery and magic about writing and ignorance easily settles for mysterious.

The second part of the question is why on earth would I write such intimate stuff about myself when I could be writing about the state of the world, the latest must-see US TV series or whether street fashion echoes the fractured structure of the government coalition. Why take such an unwarrented interest in myself? And why expose myself? One answer is simple narcissism. People who write, especially people who write novels and memoiristic non-fiction must by definition be narcissistic. Another answer, which might be the same one, is that everything I write is writing about me. The state of the world as I write it, is happening through my eyes, inevitably; filtered by my mind, turned into opinion and sentences by my fingers. I don’t have a sense of me in here and it out there as a writer. The writer and the state of the world are both in here and out there together. For the non-writer me, part of the darkness is a refusal to turn on the TV news. To refuse to acknowledge the world. Yet at the same time I’m unable to stop myself reading intently online about mean and vicious world events, which are as bleak and warlike as myself at the moment. The world perhaps always reflects one’s state of mind, although it’s hard for me to imagine observing the events in the Ukraine and Crimea in a happy, cheerful mood and coming away optimistic. The world always looks bleak to me, and always has. I understand that this is not the case with everyone, although I can’t imagine it. It might be that my lurking darkness exists in that way all the time, even when I’m perfectly ‘well’. Most importantly, if writing matters, it matters that writers write about the world, and that there is always and only their view that you are at any given time reading. My writing for publication of any sort, is not the beginning of a dialogue. The round-up piece of everyone’s views is useful, but it’s not writing as I mean it and do it. In whatever mood, (though unfortunately I don’t have many so my work is hardly kaleidoscopic) I reject the idea that I should not be included and include myself in whatever I write about. How could I uninclude myself?

But what about privacy? Don’t I mind about exposing my inner state to anonymous readers anywhere in the world, whom I don’t know and who don’t know me? The answer is, I’m not. I’m sitting here in bed writing this on my screen in silence in an empty house (the Poet is having a break, giving a paper in Oxford). No one is reading this except me. That I know some people will read this (those that don’t turn to other less narcissistic matters) doesn’t matter. Forgive me, I know you are each an individual with a live mind and a beating heart, but to me as I write you simply don’t exist. I am talking to myself. The ‘you’ I address right now is me-as-reader. Nothing gets beyond these four walls. Sometimes, to my surprise, I get messages from readers talking about a piece I’ve written or books of mine they’ve read, and it really does shock me, for all that I understand the reality. Someone read that, and is talking to me! Or they think they are. They are, of course, really talking to the me that goes about in the world. The one who reads the emails. The writer-me isn’t available, all she does is write. Sometimes though she hears the faint sound of world out there, and it’s a shock when the fraction of the world that reads me makes itself known. When I started writing and people came up to me to say they’d read something of mine, I had to stop myself reacting as if they’d stolen my private diary and remember that I sent the writing out into the world. Very inconsistent. But there it is. I don’t mind being that. We are, all of us, difficult, inconsistent creatures.

I’ve chosen not to look up ‘dissociation’ in the psychiatric diagnostic books, but the word does make some sense to me. As a handhold on reality, I think I should be grateful for it. There have certainly been times when I’ve been in this condition, when I have been silent and unmoving for months on end, taking most of the day to get the energy even to have a pee. As black and bleak as I can ever imagine it being. But since I’ve been ‘a writer’, I’ve been able for short periods to keep my hands moving on the keyboard and focus through some small hole in my mind on the words appearing on the screen. Dissociation works for me. I wonder if integration is the opposite of dissociation. I imagine so. I also imagine that an integrated me would be silent. In writerly terms it would be an absence of words, a full stop. I think the silence of an integrated self must be akin to the perfection of the terminal point without a word before or after it.



When I grew up I wanted to be a proper writer…

‘All pens are filled with potential’. So begins an advertisement in the Guardian newspaper for its ‘new idea’. The paper is offering weekend masterclasses in creative writing and publishing, taught by novelists (‘discover the novelist within’), historical fiction writers (‘Historical novels have been riding high in the best-seller lists of late. Fancy writing one of your own?’) and editors (‘Getting your novel published’). Ink, actually, is what my pen is filled with, although the ink has dried up in my best ever pen (a Pilot Decimo, the only fountain pen that has a retractible nib like a biro so doesn’t have a lid to lose), and I need to soak it overnight in water to get it back to having any potential as a pen at all. I don’t write anything other than notes with my pen, but I do have a longstanding writer’s fetish for the objects that might be considered to be relevant to my trade.

My longing for a typewriter began when I was 7 years old, and that’s what I got for Christmas. It was called a Petite Typewriter, and was a toy, which wasn’t really what I wanted. It was supposed to work but it didn’t, not properly, it kept getting stuck, and my disappointment was so palpable that it was the worst Christmas I can remember. I tried to pretend I was happy with it, but my unmissable ingratitude ruined the day. My mother screamed, my father shouted, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth. Awful. I had to wait until I was sixteen before I got a real working typewriter: one of those sit-up-and-beg, black shiny monsters, a proper machine, which I bought second-hand, and loved as people are supposed to love the person with whom they have their first kiss. All typewriters are filled with potential.

Why did I want a typewriter so badly for so long? Because as far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer (a reporter, a novelist, a poet? Anything that involved sitting at a desk putting words or the world in good order). I think I believed at seven that what I wrote – a diary, perhaps, a story or a journalistic report on family life – would be more like a real book if it was typed. I was clear even then that writers had to have typewriters, I can’t remember exactly why. Films probably gave me the image of a writer as a figure tapping out words on a contraption. Clearly, pen and paper are far more portable and flexible (until my beloved 11inch Macbook Air came along), but a typewriter (and later a computer) would somehow ground me into a being I wanted to be. It settled me in a place and in a position of work. I wanted to be a professional writer. I never saw writing as an activity done reclining, ladylike, on my bed or pacing the romantic hollows of Coleridge’s Quantock hills and valleys.

Nevertheless, the typewriter was only always only an adjunct. I knew perfectly well that the potential had to come from me. The machine just made me feel more like a grown-up writer – I knew exactly what I meant by that: authoritative in my use of language and thought in a way that would convince me (and secondarily any readers I might have) that I was indeed A Writer. I’ve been striving for that since I was seven and I still don’t feel I’m there and doubt now that I ever will be. I keep trying, and that, as well as having to pay bills, is why I keep writing. But I worry sometimes about what would happen if I ever believed I’d achieved it. If I ever woke up one morning convinced that I was the writer I always wanted to be, and not always falling short, what would I do? Very likely never get out of bed again. Or be someone entirely different. That might be a relief of sorts, but I’m too old now to go out and get a proper job.

I have never thought of writing as ‘creative’. I’ve wondered constantly if I had any imagination, or ability, or talent, or anything to write about, but I’ve never used the word ‘creative’ to describe anything I do (apart from lying). ‘Creative’ is not a word I can use even to myself without embarrassment, and placing in distancing quotation marks. Yet the quite recent marriage of ‘creative’ with ‘writing’ has brought very large amounts of money to universities and colleges who institute such courses (almost all of them now), and it secures a livelihood for many writers who, like all of us, are finding it increasingly hard to live from their own work. It isn’t just the Guardian; Faber and Faber, a publishing house of great repute, now has the ‘Faber Academy’, which offers courses tutored by its own writers and staff for  large sums of money. Finding your inner novelist doesn’t come cheap.

University courses, especially the most desirable ones, also and crucially offer the opportunity to network. Students are introduced to professional writers and, much more importantly, literary agents and editors. I’ve been to one of their ‘network’ parties and it was grim. Students eyeing up your usefulness, getting speedily around the room. Perhaps the creative writing course will eventually become the only way to get published – why read manuscripts on spec when you can get them from your students who are actually paying you to tell them what you want them to write? Why write on spec when you can pay for a course to ensure that someone close to the business will read and assist you with your manuscript? The creative fiction writing/travel writing/screen writing/life-writing/nature-writing courses now offered are an important new income stream for newspapers, publishers and universities, all of whom are suffering devastating losses in their businesses and grants. Is it good for aspiring writers? For some, I imagine. Those who are good writers anyway will benefit from the time, space and editing expertise, while those who aren’t will produce something they will be told they can be proud of, and, if the PR is right, be poorer but apparently more satisfied with their lives. They’ve discovered their novelist within even if no one else will. What is more important than self-fulfilment, these days?

And here’s my problem. Why, since I’m living the dream with 17 books published, and a 25 year career as a writer, do I not feel fulfilled? All I wanted was to ‘be a writer’ when I grew up. I am. However, nothing about writing and being published has fulfilled me, justified me, or made me feel better about myself – but then I never thought that writing was supposed to make me feel better about myself. The satisfaction you get is ten minutes in the bath feeling relief that a manuscript is finished and sent away, and then it’s all anxiety about what didn’t work in the last one and whether you can make the next one more like the book you really wanted to write. But I admit that my vision of being a writer is just as – actually more – romantic than those who pay good money to be taught to write and get published. My daydream of writing comes from a time (the 1950s and 60s) when angst was in fashion, when writing was angelic and crazy. Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Beckett, Duras, the Beats, they all anguished about writing, as if it was the most important thing a person could do. It was a vocation, the writer was the monk, the nun, who devoted themselves to the written word, to extracting some sort of special insight about existence from the combining of discrete letters of the alphabet. It was a dogged quest that was conducted by keeping as still and alone as possible. Something to live and die for. Both at the same time, always. And that was the writer I wanted to be. It is, as any modern publisher will tell you (and has told me), a hopelessly sentimental view of the literary world. But I did know people who lived that sort of life, who were published in spite of selling only a few copies, because their publishers were excited about what they did. They didn’t make much or even any money, and they weren’t mobbed in the streets. They didn’t, unless they were poets, go about doing readings or book signings. They didn’t figure which genres they should write according to market demands. They didn’t attend focus groups (as novelists have done recently) of ‘ordinary readers’ set up by publishers to ask chapter by chapter how they were doing and what should be altered. They just wrote and worried.

Nor did they win prizes – apart obviously from the Nobel (‘Catastrophe,’ said Beckett when he was told). Early on in my writing career, I said to my then publisher that I didn’t want to be entered for prizes, not the Booker, certainly not the Orange Prize for women, none of them. I hated the idea of being in competition with other writers, of books being judged winners or losers by committee. I was told that they wouldn’t publish me unless I changed my attitude. Prizes are essential, even more now than then. They are in fact the only lifeline left for ‘literary’ writers. Publishing houses, like any other business (and they usually are also several other businesses, including in some cases arms dealers) are interested in profit. I am repeatedly told that. They will not spend money on publicity or lay out between £20,000 and £80,000 for a good spot on the front table of bookshop, unless they are certain the product will recoup the investment. The supermarkets and large distributors tell publishers what will and won’t sell. If yours is deemed one that won’t, no one will know you have a book out unless you get some reviews; bookshops will buy a single copy but won’t display it, and the only hope you have of getting sales is if you go head-to-head with other writers and manage to beat them or at least get shortlisted. The public love a race, they might take enough interest to buy a copy of your book. Writers become winners or losers in the eyes of publishers even if they admire your writing in the old fashioned way that publishers used to. If you don’t play the game or don’t get shortlisted your shelf-life is up.

I’m told that this is fine. That books are a market like everything else. Even young literature undergraduates have told me that a book which doesn’t sell is, by definition, not a good book. Popular books that please and don’t demand too much of readers once subsidised new non-bestselling writers. Now that doesn’t make economic sense. Why wouldn’t you engineer more bestsellers and make more profit? Though it seems a shame to me, I can’t say that the books that won’t be published would necessarily have improved the world. Perhaps it’s not a tragedy, but I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to daydream about being a writer, before the world became more sensible.

This original English version published in Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten 2011