Writing has always been important to me. I remember, when I was younger, that I used to write religiously every night, exhausting notebook after notebook with angst-ridden stories. Looking back on them now – perhaps out of wistfulness, perhaps searching for common threads in a tangled mess of imagery, perhaps hoping, or wondering if, I had captured something in that naivety that was worth remembering – they are, as you would expect, somewhat embarrassing, shoddily constructed, overwrought, agonized, wandering, urgent, wayward, trite, earnest, lucid, unfocussed, dismal, brighter than much I would now dare to write.
Much of it was influenced by divorce, bullying, grief, alienation, song lyrics, the person and world I wanted to discover and actualize, a grasping for politics I had not yet found, a grappling with frameworks for understanding myself and for deciphering the complex, collective and unique experiences of anguish and joy. It was always a world I felt comfortable retreating into, seeking refuge in, knowing that there might be warmth and consolation, if not answers. It was usually crystallising and cathartic, sometimes frustrating, like trying to chase storms to their source – a certain curiosity it sated, a certain impulse for betterment and peace and clarity it fulfilled, but ultimately disorienting and steeped in an enveloping kind of chaos, a vertigo at the enormity of it all. Indeed, the process of writing always raised and was laden with broader questions around the role, purpose and utility of writing itself: on the tensions and limits of catharsis, the fraught nature of writing as a kind of therapeutic tool (perhaps all equipment is deficient when wandering the wastelands of grief), the vagueness of the boundary between purposeful delving and mystifying dwelling, how immersion in and crystallisation of pain can entail a loss or entrapment of oneself in its murky depths, writing as something both of and within the world but also necessarily outside of it, how inner constructed worlds interact and jar with a messier external reality, etc.
I’ll always remember the English teacher in Sixth Form that encouraged me to pursue writing. Her disposition was that of a kind of disgruntled tenderness, a hardened and quietly tempestuous exterior belying an interior of intimate care and ardour: almost an embodiment of the writers she admired, as if she deeply inhabited the art and its personas channelled themselves through her. She was infatuated with Byron, and adored the Romantic poets, and it was in no small part her passion for them that helped me fall in love with their artistry too. I borrowed her personal version of a book comprising a selection of Shelley’s poems. It was punctuated with her thoughtful commentary, notes and annotations – I can picture the arc of the handwriting still. I always pondered why exactly she lent me that book – but I know I felt honoured, and that when I read it something profound shifted within me; sparks of lighting and fire struck, emblazoning the horizons of my imagination, weaving themselves into the most exceptional patterns. Art, the world, and my conception of my place within it, were all transformed.
To this day, Shelley’s work is ineffably special to me – I found a sense of belonging in its scope, its intensity, its radicalism. The memory of that teacher, who asserted I was a great writer, told me she was proud of me when the fragments of my home struggled to piece sentiments of affection together, and hugged me when I won a poetry prize, is even more special to me. I remember how much I admired her, and how her reciprocation of that admiration was an immense blessing, and still is. That memory still bolsters me, and I want to honour it, dedicate the space to it that it deserves. She not only nurtured my writing, but – like no one else really had – instilled me with the faith that I had something important to say, and that I should have the faith in myself to say it. She encouraged me to continue writing at a point where I needed it most. I wonder if she’d still be proud of me, whether one day she’ll read anything I write, how she’s doing, whether she’d have ever counted on me to become the rebel I always suspected her to be. I think she’d probably assert that all good writers should flout the rules.
I find myself often struggling to feel as connected to writing as I did in my younger years. One might say it’s the erosions and trappings of life, depression and adversity. After all, hardship can harbour with it an urgency to seek out catharsis, yes, but it can also deprive of creativity, leach of vitality, erode one’s faith that such virtues as clarity or hope are possible. Depression eclipses and blunts emotion, withers memory, eviscerates self-worth – only the most romantic depictions of the illness could render it as a source of inspiration when mostly it just amounts to a kind of unforgiving emptiness, a desperate dread that the world is bereft and everyday life is an unsurvivable, unbearable and drudging ordeal.
I think, most of all, though, I’m scared to write. I think I was always a little scared, because it was important to me and I didn’t want to fail, I didn’t want to fuck it up, I didn’t want to commit something to paper and discover one of the very few things I believed in and was told I was good at didn’t measure up, didn’t amount to anything, didn’t mean much to anyone. But I mostly wrote for myself, for my own closure and catharsis. Why did the world need to see it for it to be important? Why couldn’t I just write unshackled from the weight of those expectations?
The answer, I guess, is clear: writing, truly good writing, is a communion, a dialogue, an exercise in empathy. It becomes a collective phenomenon, begins to offer a means to reshape the world rather than just observe its motions and vicissitudes, when it is shared, communicated, explored, when it no longer consigns itself to monologues, when the world rather than solely one’s thoughts become its theatre, when the cast and audience expand and narratives of histories and futures manifest. Stories are how we trace the world, trace worlds we’ve known and yet to know, trace promises of something better and different. They are one of the most intimate expressions of the inner self as we seek out meaning and purpose in that world.
And that, I think, is part of the reason for my fear: if what is written here is the most undiluted expression of who I am, what if it is unworthy? What if it is indulgent, equivocating, cynical, lacking, uninteresting, harmful, even selfish? What if I can never do justice to the significance of the topics that I want to explore – what if I’m missing something, if I never get it right? What if it my thoughts never translate as I wish them to? What if some things just cannot be articulated or reasoned through? What if I look back on this blog in the future and am ashamed of it? What if people I admire the most are disappointed in it? What if I can’t write like I used to, if I’ve lost something? What if I’m reaching for something I’ll never find?
I’ve found myself returning to previous blog posts frequently, agonizing for days over their content, editing over and over again, in the most difficult moments even feeling an impulse to erase them, purge them from the plane of the public, withdraw back into the safety of shelter rather than risk the vicissitudes of the weather. When it just feels like you’re getting drenched and you haven’t seen so much as a glimmer of lightning in a long time, the horizons start to blur, the worlds you’re trying to create seem to become eroded and mired in fog, and you wonder if the lightning is just in some other part of the world that you can’t reach.
After all, writing begins from a premise that you do indeed have something important and unique to say, that your voice deserves to be listened to. This is an assertion I’ve always found difficult to come to terms with. We all have a story to tell, but I’ve always struggled to imagine mine needed or deserved space. I think a lot of us probably feel that way, and that this doubt is in part a result of how power functions in our society: our collective stories wrought into the mould and narrative of dominant ideology, assimilated and smouldering, our creativity sublimated, our autonomy repressed, our collectivity shattered, our dignity ensnared and besieged by the trappings of profit and domination.
But it is, of course, not simply a political question – though one wonders where the separation resides. Much could be written of the contours of that separation. In part, I started this blog to reclaim some of my personal voice. It’s deeply inflected by politics, of course – the very name of the blog is a bit of a give away in that sense. But politics, though useful in articulating a theoretical framework which connects personal experience to broader forces, was never quite enough to figure through grief, loss, especially death.
I found myself increasingly frustrated when trying to write about these things, resorting to vague and wavering metaphors, agonizing over the irrationalities and tensions, tormented by not only the pain but the very fact that I could not find peace. It’s one of the reason I harked back to my old notebooks, wondering if my younger self had any lucid insights, perhaps trying to reconcile my current self with a persona that had not known as much pain, one that was not so lost and submerged. How do you render the dimensions of those experiences? How do you render any of this adequately, enough to honour memory, care, hopelessness, shame, love, enough to reckon with the fear and gravity and complexity, enough that you might finally be able to let go?
I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps I never will. These stories are always evolving, as we change, as the world around us does. Words are not intended as blueprints, but, I think, an initiation of a conversation – with pain, with history, with possibility. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that through these stories we can begin to not only cautiously map out some of the vastness of the world, but make some imprint on it, offer some guidance to ourselves and one another.
I often feel envious that my favourite music artists can better capture my emotions than I could ever hope to, that I could never be so clear-sighted or eloquent, but I think to conceptualize it in the terms of competition would be misguided. The very best song lyrics are not only the simplest ones, but those that speak to a certain commonality of experience, that venture to expose conversations that are repressed and marginalized, that question and challenge and search rather than presume simple conclusions, that at once acknowledge and reckon with the rigours of the world but also assert our agency in it. Writing is an often painful process because it is an act of reclaiming voice, asserting one’s place in an often vicious world, trying to forge something complete and grounded out of an infinitely messy reality, exposing oneself to judgement and misinterpretation, and bracing ourselves against our most grievous insecurities. It is a process wracked always by the dissonance between ideation and realization, and the doubt of how much should be uncovered or revealed.
It’s said you should write about what scares you, and writing is one of the things that scares me. But, despite this, I still feel an urge to write: to try to encapsulate that feeling of electrified euphoria that courses through the crowd at a gig, to try to process the impossible enigmas of grief and loss, to try to understand the world, to express stories in the hope that others might find something in it, that I might. I think there’s something worthwhile in that, and I hope that feeling doesn’t wither away, and I hope that every time I write I’m confronting my fears, reaching somewhat closer to some kind of answer, some kind of conclusion, contributing something to this ever-charged and ever-developing network of conversations with the world and each other, like a criss-cross of flares set off from shipwrecks, cast less like meteors to cauterize the rifts in one another’s horizons but more like sparks scattered to let others know we’re out there and we’re struggling too. Sometimes that feels like the closest we can get to lightning, but it’s something.
There is, I hope, something significant in daring to ask the questions, even knowing that, ultimately, maybe all of this is just too chaotic, complicated and immense to make sense of. There is, I hope, some worth to weaving the kind of stories that attempt to kindle something, articulate our vulnerability, and bind us together despite the throes we wade through. There is, I hope, some hope to find here, some clarity, some story worth telling.