On Still Being Here

The thing about writing a book is that you end up being good for nothing else. You absolutely resent all interruptions – work, the postman banging on the door, birds singing outside, the couple talking next to you in the cafe. One day you have the best idea of your life, but the next day you are stuck halfway through a chapter. So you text your brother (who has been reading along avidly, all this time), and fire questions at him about what he thinks your main character would do. You are asking this because you have no idea what your main character would do. You feel like Adrian Mole, who writes a story about a man called Jake wandering round a shopping precinct questioning where he came from and where he is going. Adrian abandons the story because “I don’t know where Jake came from, or where he’s going either.”

So, you take a break. And luckily, after you’ve made tea and listened to Tales of Hoffman, your main character appears. She glares at you and says “I hate my mother”. And you say, relieved, “Of course” because that’s given you your plot and the rest of the chapter writes itself. And so we beat on, boats against the current, trying not to capsize into the Lake of Unfinished Manuscripts. You can see why writers go on retreat. I sometimes fantasise about a six-week holiday, all expenses paid, up a mountain where I can finish this damn story.

The other thing about writing a book, or giving time to writing in general, is that it is a slow background process. It involves patience and trust in yourself. Sometimes I do feel as if I’ve vanished into the background to write, and worry that I will have nothing to show for it when I come back.

I find it’s hard to vanish these days and just get on with it, because I use social media, and social media is all about telling people that you’re still here and getting on with the job (or procrastinating on the job, whichever it may be). Writers on social media generally use it as a tool. They sell their books. They talk to readers. They post snapshots of their half-finished work. Some writers publish microfiction online, which is the most instant form of fiction you can get. (And I am completely and utterly all for this, although personally I would rather die than publish a photo of one of my shitty first drafts, and I use social media to talk to friends, procrastinate and vent. To each their own.)


Because writers on social media talk about their successes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “These writers all know what they’re doing. I’m not a real writer. I’m not doing anything.” Easy to discount your own background work and feel as if it doesn’t count, because your project is currently so messy that you feel shy about summing up in 140 characters or less.


We live in a culture that doesn’t reward or even acknowledge quiet background work. But then, I can’t think of a culture or a time in history that ever did; it’s just intensified now because online culture moves so fast. I feel like young writers see their favourite writers on Twitter, posting updates on their projects and thanks to their fans. We see writers publishing hot takes, 800-word thinkpieces, on an event that only happened 2 hours ago (“how did she have the time to write that?”) And we feel pressured. We feel like we should work very fast, very publically, and have something to show for it straight away. The idea of putting months of time and effort and reflection in
is, and always has been, scary to a young person. It feels like a huge percentage of your life.

And yes, it is hard to steal time from school, or university, or caring for younger siblings or relatives, and from the capitalist system we live in. It is hard to do the background work with no promise of reward, when other people seem to already be so far ahead of you in every way.

My only advice is, if you have a passion for something and you can find any time in which to do it, even half an hour in bed with your laptop – nick that time. Rob it, run away with it, use it. Don’t hesitate, and do not regret. I’ve had friends at my day job ask me how I find time to read. “I used to love reading,” they say, “I don’t know why I stopped.” But we work the same amount of hours. I don’t have any more time in the day that they do. But I choose to make time to read and write, working late at night or on the train, because it feels vital to my well-being. No, it’s not easy, because capitalism wants to steal every shred of time we have, but once we’ve nicked some time – even that half an hour, in the evening – we can do something with it.

The pianist James Rhodes wrote that we have “evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity”. He argues the time is there if we look for it.

I read an essay by a writer who commented that she spoke to a lot of people who seemed to want her to ‘write that 70,000 word novel for them’, rather than putting the time in themselves.


In EM Delafield’s
The Diary of a Provincial Lady, written in the 1920s, the narrator is stunned by a woman who says that she would write a play if she had time. (‘Would we all be able to write a play if we just had time?’ the narrator wonders.)

And I’m not knocking anyone who says they don’t have time, because I feel like it’s really universal to think: ‘if I had more time, I could do anything. Creative work is so much effort, I wish I could just finish the project straight away, and then I’d feel like I was really doing something with my life’.


And that leads us to the more important reason for this feeling of vanishing, which is that I graduated six months ago. Last year I was involved in student journalism, writing interviews and articles along with my dissertation. As soon as I finished my dissertation and exams, I locked down and started writing what Ali Smith calls “story-shaped things”. Since I have ADD, I struggle to focus on work. I figured that my ADD affects my ability to start a story and tell it all the way through. And I thought, challenge accepted, because I will
die if someone else writes these stories before I do.

So I just… wrote. Story after story after story. Bits and pieces and fragments, long tales and short: one of which grew into a book, and is still growing. Being out in the world is difficult. Writing is hard. But that’s what I’ve been doing – background work – and I feel proud of what I have so far.


I told a friend recently that I feel like everyone else around me is moving on and doing great things with their lives, and she reminded me that what you see on social media is the “best bits”. It’s a very salient point for writers and for everyone in general: most people you meet
will only tell you the best bits. Why? Because they are self conscious, they don’t feel obliged to tell you the difficult parts, they’re frightened of being judged.

I really forgot about this blog for a while, with that and the hurricane of events that happened in the last few months of 2015, but I’ve been reflecting on its purpose. I’ve decided to keep the blog as a space for short personal essays, and to update when I can. Why? Because you can say more in an essay than in a short paragraph. Because a personal essay gives you space to be truthful. Because in an essay you can write about anything.


So: hi. I’m still here.


Like the mother says in Ali Smith’s
How to be both: “And yet, here I am. Still happening.”

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Echo answers back: my first reading of Metamorphoses

(Content warning for frequent references to death, violence and rape.)

*****

Friends, I am in love. This time it’s a poet. As anyone who follows my personal blog may have noticed, Ovid has stolen my heart. It’s rather inconvenient as he was born in 43 BC in the Ancient Roman world, and I followed on two millennia later, but I don’t care. It was meant to be.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 23, having never read a text like it before, is to have a light switched on in a dark room. No, it’s having the sun come up and illuminate your world. To anyone who loves language and stories, the Metamorphoses are an endless delight and the springboard for endless connections, reflections and ideas. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word lycanthropy, or the stories behind the words arachnid, hermaphrodite and echo?
Have you ever explained to a child that the whole world is made of atoms, which are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves; about how water dissolves and condenses as cloud and falls as rain? Have you ever thought about how the content of your own human body will one day disintegrate, the atoms in you becoming part of other people. Have you ever felt limited by your own body and have you wondered about the possibility of becoming something greater than or different from yourself? Dickinson wrote that “this quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies” but in The Metamorphoses death (and dust, and decay) is only one direction that a body can take. In this world there are multiple possibilities; people are changed into spiders, wolves, flowers, swans, water, and the whole universe is in a constant state of flux.
You’ve read and seen plenty of retellings of Proserpina’s story – from the references in David Almond’s novel Skellig to Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s iconic painting. But now you read the original tale and its full horror and beauty comes afresh. The story captures the primal anguish of rape, and the terror of a mother who loses a daughter and quite literally tears up heaven and earth to find her:

“[Ceres] had torn up two pine trees,
Kindled both in Etna,
And holding them high
Through the long nights
Lit her path of glittering frost.”
(The Rape of Proserpina)

The stories have a primal, brutal quality, like something that just happened. The word ‘Ovid’ used to conjure up to me a lot of stone statues and dry classical allusions. But read these tales from two thousand years ago and they feel chillingly real. Yes, you think. It happened like that. That’s exactly how I would have felt too.
I discovered Ovid this summer through my usual method of finding new things, which is to chase up references my favourite authors make in their books to other authors. You should also know, if it’s not obvious, that I am basically classically illiterate. I was born a bit early for the Percy Jackson stories, so my primary introduction to the classical world was reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths at age 8. I found them really dry, and couldn’t identify with heroes like Achilles or Hector or Hercules.  
I didn’t have a classical education at school either, so as a teenager I found initially that Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid were inaccessible to me even in translated form. I didn’t understand the references or who anyone was supposed to be. I was a girl from inner-city Birmingham and felt locked out of this world. “Well,” I thought, “who needs that anyway?” and I went off and read books by basically anyone born after the fall of Rome. I don’t regret that at all, but I do think it’s a shame that I was so put off by this apparent cultural and textual inaccessibility.
A friend of mine and I once discussed the class aspect of classical education, (in Britain it is generally private schools that teach Latin and Greek language and mythology, whilst comprehensives and grammar schools teach modern languages). We spoke about feeling left out of discourse with people from private schools, who were just as smart as us but had access to a frame of reference that we didn’t know about. We agreed it was unfair that knowledge of the classical world should be associated in our country with wealth and intelligence.
Of course, I still don’t think reading Ovid makes one superior to anyone who prefers reading contemporary novels, or reading graphic novels, or not reading at all. But I will say that Metamorphoses was a thousand times more accessible than I expected. Reading Ted Hughes’s brilliantly accessible and gloriously written translation has made an enormous difference for me. It makes me feel included in an ancient mythological tradition which continues to have an enormous impact on Western culture. I’m able to really understand and treasure stories that have influenced storytelling itself. It makes me realise that anyone, regardless of education or background, should be welcome to this mythological tradition.
In writing this essay I hope to share the joy I had in reading Metamorphoses, and also share a few thoughts on what it was like reading the text as a 21st-century woman. I can’t detach my reading of it from the fact that I am a feminist and a woman, nor do I want to.
Before I read Metamorphoses I associated classical mythology with films like Troy and Wrath of the Titans, and always assumed that it was mostly about buff heroic men. Which doesn’t interest me much, frankly, because my primary joy was and is to read well-written stories about women and girls. Of course, what I didn’t know is that Metamorphoses is full of strongly drawn, believable female characters. That there are transformations of gender, like Tiresias’ and the strange fate of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which imply that gender has the capability to be utterly fluid. That the stories frequently return to the violent, volatile tensions between powerful men and the women under their control.
The stories often take in other, entirely human transformations of the body and mind. Rape, pregnancy and childbirth are often inextricably linked, as they unfortunately were in Ovid’s Roman world.
Reading Ted Hughes’s version (Tales from Ovid, published by Faber and Faber) I started making notes about the prevalence of rape and its meaning as power play, punishment and manifestation of addiction. In Tereus, quoted below, it’s interesting to note that Tereus’s behaviour is utterly condemned throughout the story.

“‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.’”
(Tiresias)

“She was to blame – her beauty. But more
The King’s uncontrollable body.
Thracians are sexually insatiable…
He was the puppet
Of instant obsession…
Philomela twisted away.
Shame tortured her.
She would not look at her sister –
As if she herself were to blame.

(Tereus)

(Bolding mine).

I also noted the instances of, as we call it now, “speaking truth to power”.
Rape is a manifestation of power. It is the gods, especially Jupiter, who are the most frequent perpetrators, but the men of the stories are often no better. The poet often sympathises with their victims and allows them to speak back, even though doing so is often followed by punishment. For instance, Philomela’s wonderful speech to Tereus – where she declares that “shame will not stop her” – angers Tereus so much that he cuts out her tongue. But although the poem is titled Tereus, we know whose story it really is that we are reading. It was a very strange experience to hear Philomela’s articulate voice ringing out, and to realise the commonality of women’s experiences down the centuries:

“I may be lost.
You have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer.
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything
To your own people, yes, to all Thrace.
Even if you keep me here
Every leaf in this forest
Will become a tongue to tell my story.”
(Tereus)

Then there is the story of Arachne, the weaver, who believes herself to be better at weaving than the goddess Minerva. (Arachne notes that “I make up my own mind and I think as I always did.”) Minerva challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who is better at weaving. Minerva’s tapestry illustrates “the kind of punishment Arachne could now expect for her impudence” by showing people being turned by the gods into mountains, storks, cranes and stone. Arachne, meanwhile, creates a tapestry which graphically shows Jupiter raping Europa and other women. Minerva’s response, realising that the tapestry is technically perfect, is to tear the tapestry off the loom and “rip it to rags” – censorship at its most primal. Again, the victim is silenced but her story resonates.
The women of Metamorphoses often meet a ghastly fate. Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider. Echo, who defends her friends by telling lies, is turned by Juno into a disembodied echoing voice. Philomela transforms into a nightingale, and in the most horrific of the stories Niobe loses all her children because of her pride. They’re punished for being proud, for being talented, for being vocal, for defying the gods. These characters stand out to me; they feel much more real and more interesting than the gods. I feel that their stories are not closed, they are ambiguous and they open up in the retelling and rereading.
I am thankful every day that I fell in love with Ovid and discovered the stories of the women in Metamorphoses. Their stories resonate endlessly; they don’t win, but God, they are brave. Their stories still exist, and the telling of them (however you choose to retell them) is endlessly powerful. In her story True Short Story, Ali Smith writes about the nymph Echo and asks: “When is a short story a short story? When its echo answers back.”
I’m reminded of Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife:

Who would mourn this woman, who was thought
To be the least of losses, hardly worth a breath?
Yet I will always hold her in my heart,
Who for a single glance accepted death.
(Lot’s Wife – Anna Akhmatova)

***

Further resources
In Our Time – Metamorphoses
girl meets boy – Ali Smith
Proserpina – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Abuse Survivor Resources

Writer’s block + Perspective

Hello. I’m getting over a bout of writer’s block. I can tell you exactly when it started, down to the day and the hour. On August 15th I visited Horniman Museum, to reward myself because I’d been working hard all summer on fiction submissions. That morning I had written a short story, in a cafe, about a woman who shoplifts a red umbrella.
At the museum, I sat on a bench in the gardens with my notebook, on a hill overlooking a magnificent view of the city skyline, and wrote the first few paragraphs of a story I’d been thinking about. At this point there was a huge ripping, roaring noise and a World War II bomber flew overhead, leaving a trail of smoke. The three drunk men sitting on the next bench over cheered and pointed excitedly; the polite Thai student sitting next to me asked if I knew what it was about. We figured out the plane must be part of the VE Day celebrations. The Thai student remarked that a few days ago it had been the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He indicated the sushi he was eating for lunch and said that this was why he was eating Japanese food today.
I remember this vividly, and I also remember walking back home in the sunshine, stopping in at Forest Hill library, (by this time it was four in the afternoon and the library was empty) and inhaling Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories. Once I’d read it – cover to cover, right there on the library floor – I was pretty sure I needed to change the umbrella story dramatically. I almost wished there was a way to unwrite it, and to write something more surreal, bold, playful instead. More like an Ali Smith story.
I took an antidepressant for the first time in over two months, went home, and didn’t write anything. For ages.
I didn’t understand why. It felt like all the small processes that go into writing – daydreaming up stories, closely observing situations, making up things about people around me, the willpower to sit down and write – had abruptly ground to a halt: like when you have too many tabs open on your laptop and it overheats. Whenever I sat down to write, I could feel some kind of deep processing happening in me. It sucked dry all my energy and left me feeling like a monkey sitting at a computer.
Writer’s block is always distressing for me. Sometimes I ring my dad and wail, “I can’t write, I don’t know what to write,” and his soothing response is, “Why don’t you just write something down and see if that helps?” Which is quite like telling someone with a broken leg that they’ll feel much better after playing hopscotch. I look up writing prompts and think, “Stupid”, I look through old notebooks and think “Ridiculous.” Then I read the news and wonder what the point of writing is: when you are such a small part of the whole, and so many people are suffering. How can you hope to make sense of such an overwhelming world?
Writing is my usual way to put my perceptions into perspective. It’s like when I lost my glasses; suddenly I couldn’t see very well, I was cranky, and I got a lot of headaches.
Writing is magic in two ways. (For me.) One, it is an escape from the world; two, it’s a way to map out my surroundings in a way that I can understand. If I don’t write things down to process them, I quickly fall into two bad thought patterns. One of the thought patterns is hyperfocusing – zooming in fretfully on small, irrelevant details of your life, which your brain gets stuck on. You end up stuck on thinking about the song “Have you ever loved and lost somebody” which you haven’t heard since you were on your way to the Fort, Erdington, in a friend’s car sometime in late 2001. Or you remember the exact wording and tone of a mild criticism someone gave you in autumn 2013 and become very fretful because what if everyone secretly thinks that and this is the most important thing anyone’s ever said and what if it sums up my whole personality oh my God…
What sums it up best is this quote from Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.”

The other bad pattern is the opposite, actually: it’s zooming out. When I’m stuck in this thought pattern, I feel detached from the details of everyday life – as though my life is a map, spread out in front of me. I keep mentally scanning this map of my life, the patterns within it, and its socioeconomic, psychological, historical influences; trying to get it all in a broader perspective, to see myself in terms of history and power structures. I guess you could call this contextualising. I end up ruminating about the amount of trouble that my generation is in, the amount of debt that we’ve all run up, how slim our chances are of living in prosperity, and our damaged global environment. And then I worry about what the future might hold for us.
But the thing about a bird’s eye view is that you can see everything, but at the same time you can’t really see anything. Nothing is detailed; everything is a sort of blocked-in approximation. I don’t believe I could live happily if I was constantly zooming out to this bird’s eye view. I envy people who can command this broad historical/theoretical/sociological perspective, but I find it all exhausting to think about. The world around me, with its proliferation of details and stories and people, is engaging and overwhelming enough.
Between the hyperfocusing and the bird’s eye view, I felt completely lost and detached from myself. Every insecurity came sneaking up on me on rubber-soled shoes; everything I’ve done is bad. I ended up reading other people’s blogs, and wondering enviously how everyone seems to have a better life than me. When I am able to write, I never worry about being replaceable; when I can’t write, I worry that everything I am and everything I do could be easily replaced.
I’ve only lost two or three weeks and it was probably a much needed break after working all summer, but it’s felt like a terrible, everlasting dry spell. I felt as though if I picked up a pen and wrote, my hand would turn to sand, the pen would dissolve into water, I would fall through myself into a pile of grainy sand.
I beat it in a simple way, anyway: I woke up this morning, grabbed my laptop and sleepily decided to write something, anything. I caught myself unawares, I think, because I went on to write three pages and feel much happier.
It was only after writing them down that it struck me I had taken antidepressants and got writer’s block on the same day. So I’ve been wondering – what if the antidepressants are connected to writer’s block? Is the medicine somehow blocking the creative processes in my brain? And if so, how come I can write now?

The thing is, I don’t want to have to choose between writing and antidepressants, especially as both are very much needed. My hope is that both my writing and mental health will settle down soon, after this period of adjustment and change. Fingers crossed.