If I sat down opposite you, I wouldn’t know what to say at first. The pleasantries – ‘so, how have you been?’, or ‘what have you been up to,’ will unlock the conversation.
But sometimes, I wish I could truly say what is on my mind and in my heart. I am too wary, too afraid of being judged, held back by the past, and uncertain of what is and isn’t acceptable. I wish I could say that I’m tired. That writing this book has taken a lot out of me, and now I want to try and refill the well. That when I look at the blank page, I feel fear, as if everything I could possibly write about has already been written. I feel as though I have nothing left.
I wish I could say that my sleep is the wrong way around again. That most nights, I stay up until gone 2am, my mind a whirl of thoughts and anxieties, a mind unable to rest. That since I got back from the US, my body clock has been completely disrupted. I know that all I have to do is go to bed earlier. That if I can’t sleep, I can read until I feel sleepy. I’ve stopped drinking caffeinated tea so much – instead I drink Rooibos tea. If I was being completely honest with myself, I think my sleep, anxiety, and lacklustre creativity are all connected. Back to basics.
Ghosts from the past come to haunt me too. Things I wish I could say or do. But my tongue is silent. And when I want to say what is bothering me now, I just can’t let the words pass. My heart is a tangle of thorns, a tangle that I thought was undone, finished with. Instead, I keep being pierced, and who knows if that will ever stop? Humans are so complicated. Our brains store trauma and if we don’t fully exorcise, it just keeps coming up.
Maybe what I crave is simplicity. Not the boring kind of simplicity, but the simplicity of when I first started writing. Just me and the page, my imagination, the writing routine and structure I gave myself. It seems a while since I put pen to paper, wrote a piece of fiction, worked on my novel, or wrote a short story. Or wrote an opinion piece unconstrained by whether or not anyone else would see it. So much of my writing now feels hampered by the idea that other people will see it. Writing for an audience, you hold back, whether consciously or unconsciously.
And like everyone, I am troubled and anxious about the state of our world. About the environment, the political landscape, human rights, animal welfare and conservation. The world feels too big. In some moments, I feel insignificant. Though I always, always have hope in my heart, I am also more pessimistic than I used to be. Pessimism isn’t quite the right word. More realistic? Maybe there is less rose in my rose-tinted glasses. Creativity is usually the balm that soothes my troubled heart. At least writing, and creating, and doing means that there is some joy being put out into the world. We do need creative people more than ever. We need art, we need artists and writers and film-makers and activists making art. It matters. I believe it matters. And still, in my most anxious moments, I wonder: is it enough? Am I doing enough? What can I do? What next?
Let me admit that even when I published my book, I kept going back over it and wondering if what I had written would truly help anyone. I didn’t write Fragments for myself, so much. It was cathartic and a powerful way for me to reflect on my life and identity, and themes of belonging and activism, but it is first and foremost my gift to whoever needs it most. I have no idea if it means anything, but maybe it will mean something to someone. Isn’t that the power that writers have, that our work might, hopefully, change something for somebody?
So many writers and creatives cope with crippling self-doubt. The best advice I’ve seen, recently, is from Dani Shapiro’s book, Still Writing. She shares a quote by Martha Graham that I copied and pinned up above my desk in the studio:
‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.’
That ‘blessed unrest’, that ‘divine dissatisfaction’ – they are there all the time. It’s my busy mind, my dissatisfaction with what I’ve written, my uncertainty that what I’ve created means anything. And still, I keep writing. Keep sharing. So should you. Keep going, no matter what. It isn’t our place, necessarily, to know the value of our work. Only the people who read our work, the people who see our art, can understand the value of it for them.