There’s something about seeing someone you love stare death in the face and voice regrets that leads to pondering life’s big questions. At least, there’s something about my father nearing the end of his life and talking about his regrets that has got me thinking deeply.
Isn’t it strange how much we dwell on what we think we’ve done wrong, on where we think we aren’t good enough, on what we need to improve? These are not just the concerns of one old man: Western society is obsessed with improvement. I told my father that all that he might have said or done that caused hurt was far outweighed by the kindness and love that he gave and gives. (He is in hospital because he could hardly walk due to anaemia caused by cancer, yet his biggest concern is how hard this is on my mother.)
But as I told my father to think about his kindness, it also got me thinking about where I did the same thing. In what way did I focus on where I wasn’t enough? For instance, why did I beat myself for feeling fear about promoting this blog or my books, or about sending writing out to agents or editors? I’d been telling myself for years – and other people had been telling me too – that I had to get over this fear and just do it. Sometimes I’d feel the fear and do it anyway. Sometimes I’d have success, sometimes I’d have rejections. (Okay, like most writers, more often I’d have rejections.) But the fear remained.
And here’s the thing: I knew already that trying to get rid of fear (or any emotion) doesn’t work. I even knew that doing something doesn’t necessarily stop you feeling fear – otherwise actors would stop getting nervous before stepping onto the stage and my kids would have stopped feeling nervous about entering swimming contests. They’ve given up entering them now, but they never got over the fear. Of course, some things do get easier with time. The first day of a new school term isn’t quite so nerve-wracking as the first day of school, or after you’ve been in a job for a while it seems easier (for most people, most of the time.) But it’s a fallacy to think that all you have to do is do it, and the fear dissolves.
So, instead of trying to force myself past my fears, I’ve begun to look at them differently. What if they are actually telling me something? What if it’s time to look more deeply at why I write? Time to notice what my deeper desires are? Do I want fame and fortune or do I want to connect with people? Is the urge to write just a drive over which we have little control? Should my writing be for entertainment only, or should it convey a deeper meaning?
I don’t as yet have answers to all these questions, and I’m fine with that. I do know that for me, writing has to be about connection, and about enhancing our experiences of life. I have no desire to write something that makes anyone think they need to buck up and do better, or to tell anyone how they should live. But I do want to offer possibilities for hope, to show that with compassion and love we can all be our best selves rather than our worst selves. And I don’t even like that last sentence much, because it suggests good and bad and I don’t believe people are good or bad. So, perhaps it’s not so much about being our best selves as our authentic selves. That includes the darker parts of us.
Learning to be authentic is definitely part of why I write. I often find that changes occur in my writing before they occur in my general life. Writing helps me understand myself and other people better – and to accept or allow how we are. Several years ago, when I was working towards my MA, I got bogged down with one character. My workshop group said he was one-dimensional, so I changed him. Then my tutors said I’d paid too much attention to other people’s opinions and the character had lost his intensity. This was true, and for a while I thought I’d lost him completely. In a novel that has no villains, this guy is the closest any of them come to “bad guy.” But when I set out to write the novel he had no redeeming qualities. That’s no doubt why people called him one dimensional. I’ll be honest – back then I initially felt reluctant to changing him. I wanted him to be my revenge on the “bad guys” I’d dated.
But to make him more than a cardboard cut-out, I had to go deeper. I invented a family for him, discovered he’d had a hapless father who deserted the family, a bullying grandpa and a mother who broke under the strain. I also, reluctantly, noticed that his rage was the dark side of me I didn’t want to own. It had to be so: no writer can invent emotions they’ve never known, at least not authentically. It took a few more years till I faced that dark side, forgave my own anger and let it go, but it was a process that began with delving deeply into a character.
So, perhaps this is why I write: because it shows me myself and it shows me other people. But if that’s the case, it matters not a jot whether anyone ever reads what I write. I could do it all in a journal, and indeed, since my early childhood, many trees have sacrificed themselves for my random thoughts and scribbles. Yet, I also write with the aim of publication – be in on a blog, short story or novel. Why? What makes me think that I have something worth saying to other people?
The answer to that probably lies in an incident from over twenty years ago. But first, I need to go back a little further: to high school. There, as I listened to the “cool” kids discuss fancy ideas in English classes using words didn’t understand, I thought my vocabulary was poor and I kept quiet. I felt on the edge of things, excluded by my ignorance. Later, at art school and in various jobs, the story was similar. I felt on the edge.
|Photo by Rosen Georgiev via Freedigitalphotos|
In my early thirties, I started training as a teacher – and yet again felt out of step. As part of the course, we had to write assignments. Other students grumbled about these, but they were what I enjoyed most. So when I began teaching, I also enrolled in a creative writing class. We wrote snippets of memoir, articles, descriptive passages. We began to create stories with plots and tension. We read and discussed each other’s writing. One evening, I realised that people were listening to what I said, and that they valued it. For the first time in my life, instead of feeling on the edge of things, I felt in the middle. I felt as if I belonged.Writing felt right.
I’ve since come to see that feeling on the edge has more to do with beliefs about oneself than it does with the reality of how things are. I’ve come to see that most people feel this way, most of the time. And maybe that’s now why I continue to write for publication – because occasionally someone leaves a comment on a blog post or article to say that what I wrote was really helpful to them. Or someone tells me that my novel helped them come to terms with issues, or that in some other way it touched them. Someone once left this comment on my parenting blog: “…what makes your blog so valuable is the “ordinariness”, that you’re not “enlightened” or a “saint”…which makes your insights really valuable for those of us who aren’t either!”
It seems that writing for me, seems to be less about recognition and more about connection. Although that sense of belonging was initially a motivator, I don’t need that from writing any more because I feel it more generally. Or maybe why I write is even more simple. I’ve been having conversations with other writers about this, and a common theme is that we feel grumpy, out of sorts, if we aren’t writing. In a way, asking writers why they write is a bit like asking someone why they breathe. We can’t stop. Or if we do, we don’t feel so fully alive.
If you write for publication or just because, why do you do it? I’d love to hear from you, so please share your story in the comments.