I’m continuing to join in with the online discussion that Kate Motaung is hosting: On Being a Writer, based on Ann Kroeker and Charity Singleton Craig’s book On Being a Writer: 12 simple habits for a writing life that lasts. Today’s discussion prompt is ‘Surround’, and we’ve been prompted to discuss how the things/people we surround ourselves with (or don’t surround ourselves with) influence our writing and/or what (or who) inspires us in our writing.
I have to confess that I found this a very difficult prompt, as so many things inspire me! I then started trying to think of when/where/how I write at my best and was similarly stumped (aside from knowing that I need to be in a good place mentally to be able to write; if I’m not calm and peaceful, it’s just not going to happen).
I then started to think about what limits me in my writing and the answers came slightly more easily….
I live in a foreign country, far from home, isolated from my family (I haven’t seen them for more than 18 months now) and I’m living through a very difficult period personally. All of that affects me, and my writing output/quality, because it affects not only my ability to have a clear head to be able to write but, also, how much time I have available to write.
I sometimes sit and daydream: I close my eyes and pretend I can make it all go away! I see myself just getting on with my life, uninterrupted. It’s beautiful.
Then I wake up from my daydream and reality hits. A downward spiral. Alice, slipping down, down, down…there’s no roots to grab on to, nothing…
The downward spiral usually starts with me remembering my time at University, wishing I was back there in that old, old place, surrounded by stimulating people. It’s history a tangible presence, caressing me, lulling me with the charms of its power, calling me to be better, more, to fulfil (potential, dreams). Sirens. [But I never, ever, minded crashing against those rocks; they always, always taught me things]
Absorbing information, breathing interesting things, going to talks every day that would stimulate my brain, make my neurons fire, encouraging me to think way beyond the box, not just outside it. To be around people who excited me constantly.
You could feel it in the air, this excitement, you breathed it. You’d walk in to a room and not know who to talk to next because they’d all – each and every one of them – tell you some incredible tale of research they were doing/had read about, or some place they’d been….fantastic tales, all well told. An atmosphere of joy, joy in finding deep satisfaction in knowledge. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Unadulterated.
Fast forward to now. I haven’t had a decent conversation with a real person, in the flesh, for over a year. Well over a year. I speak on the phone, of course: we laugh, we gloss (for all you can ever do on the phone, in such a short time, is gloss over everything; there’s no real depth on the phone, even with your very closest friends).
I see people briefly, cursory exchanges, in Spanish. Mums dressed like Sofia Vergara at 6 in the morning, leaving their children, high heels clanking, thighs wiggling, hair sloshing, real-life blow up dolls; sideways looks up and down telling me I’m not from here, I’m not really welcome, however much they want to make it seem like they’re open-minded enough to have friends from abroad. I’ve started to not play along because it bores me now, the fake-ness of it all. [This will pass; it always passes; it’s just part and parcel of the ‘ex-pat’ life]
I wish, I wish, I wish I could speak English more often (reading English is Not Enough). As it is, some days the only person I hear speak English (other than my two littles) is Siri, and she’s got an American accent (no offence intended, but, well, I’m British and she sometimes makes me a little more homesick, to be honest! I see her little white circle pop up, hopefully, and I avoid even her).
I long to have a conversation in English, in person, with an adult (a real adult! a real conversation!), so my brain feels stimulated. Any conversation would be OK. I’m not asking for Nietzsche or anything fancy: just a conversation in English! I’m sick of speaking Spanish, sick of hearing Spanish, sick of seeing Spanish words everywhere. I’m surrounded by a foreign language and my brain is saying ‘Enough! Enough is enough!’
When I first arrived here, my learning curve was steep, so it was sort of an adventure: see how many new words I could learn and use and remember. The learner in me excelled. Now, I’m so over it, I’m tired and weak (weak-headed), sick of, dizzy from, speaking a different language. I can almost feel the hurt it’s doing to my brain, to my writing, to that part of my brain that connects words, produces phrases, kicks out sentences that sing. A daily assault, a daily battery of artillery, knocking out my native vocabulary, my flow, my pizzazz, that little ‘je ne se quoi’ that makes the written me me.
It’s very frustrating! My life is based on words. I’m a writer/editor by profession so to live my day-to-day life in Spanish, surrounded by Spanish, is, at the very least, very distracting. I’m not like my two littles, I’m not naturally bilingual, I didn’t grow up in a bilingual setting and I am not fluent in Spanish by any means. Far from it. For a wordsmith like me, who lives and breathes words, it’s a very stressful set of circumstances.
I’m trapped in the Land of No English, marooned, adrift on a current of foreign, bits of my fluency in English, my rapport, my banter, my me floating by, flotsam and jetsam, seemingly unrescue-able, like poor Mr. Dumpty, never to be put back together again. Mists on all sides, encroaching, threatening to take the edge off my writing, to dull my blades.
It’s a living nightmare, I tell you. A veritable nightmare.
What do I do in response? I listen to as many stimulating things as I can (Hallelujah TED and podcasts and Radio 4 online!). I read as much as I can. [Honestly, I can see why Hemingway drank so much when he was writing in Cuba: to forget, to remember, to find the words, to wrangle them dry, to compose them again in some semblance of normality]. I salute him, I salute any writer who’s gone abroad and managed to write bloody good fiction whilst there. A writer’s job is not an easy job anywhere but being marooned in the Land of No English is not something one should take on lightly: it’ll make you half crazy, so profound is the despair.
But, as with many things in life, with deep despair comes deep joy. When, for example, you realise that, despite being surrounded by other you can, sometimes, find you, clear, true-voiced, authentic you. Out she comes sometimes, timidly at first but out she does come, from you, bursting forth from your head, through your arms, your hands, to your fingers and – boom – on to the page. You. There, written out. Recorded.
Victorious despite the noise, despite the foreign, despite the isolation and the loneliness.
We all have surroundings that aren’t conducive to our writing. Isn’t it a miracle we manage to find the space, within these confines, to write?
I find that just amazing. That these stories are so powerful they surge out, no matter what. [Storytelling as a basic human need?]
How to make them surge that bit easier? Isn’t that the golden question!
Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit the typewriter and bleed”….(ouch!)…
Or, my personal favourite, the one that sits above my writing desk and that I look at often when I’m willing myself on: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know”.
[It works! Praise the Lord! It really works!]
And my, oh my, to get to the stage Ray Bradbury reached when he said, “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me”…..when we’re there, sat there, in front of the computer and we’re there, in the actual zone, flowing, when what comes out is pure you, the ideas escaping faster than you can possibly record them, your surroundings having disappeared, long ago, as you become these words.
The words consume you. Eat you. Ask you to release them.
No wonder so many writers have gone bonkers! [We can’t live with it, can’t live without it]
What was it Ray Bradbury also said? “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you”…
We writers, those who know we’re writers (even if we’re too timid to say “We’re writers”), we itch, live, work, breathe words, can’t wait for the opportunity to write.
Let’s make a pact: we’ll surround ourselves with things that tip the balance in our favour, we’ll make the time, clear our heads, get over ourselves, commit, get down to it….
Are you with me? [Please say you’re with me! I can’t face another day bereft of stimulation!]