I have written 92 blogs, to date. I just counted, because I am slowly sifting and sorting through them, to transfer them over to my new website, which will house them from now on. 92 blogs, but today I feel wobbly about whether I can write this – the 93rd. It’s the first since I became an Author, published a book, and so, of course, as soon as I have this apparent entitlement granted – official legitimacy to write – I doubt that I deserve it or can do it. Proof, if ever I needed it, that self-doubt is a lifelong condition, and that however much acceptance I am given, or even accolades, I will still find a way to wriggle back out to the margins, to claim outsider status, because- truth be told – that uncomfortable place is where I feel most at home.
But there is another dynamic at play here as well, which is to do with finding myself an outsider, not only to the self-assured mainstream, but to my own work, which is out there now, in Waterstones. I can go in and buy it as if it had nothing to do with me (I did this yesterday) which in a way it doesn’t anymore. I spoke at the book launch of how much it felt like a boat launch – a goodbye party, as the boat-book sails off into the world without me, and I am meant to stand on the shore, to watch and see how it fares. But I don’t like the anxious checking – on Instagram, Amazon, Goodreads – the wait to see if it will get reviewed, make a long list, a short list, win a prize, whether it will ’make it’ at all. And I don’t like the sense of emptiness that follows this achievement – the almost inevitable anti-climax: ‘And now what?’
So I stand, and hold onto my doubt – that old, uncomfortable, comfort blanket, and wonder whether or not I can write another blog. I wonder, in fact, if I can ever write anything good ever again. And this is also a familiar feeling. I recognise it of old – I just finished a novel dedicated to my mother, but this doubt reminds me of my dad.
My father suffered from a kind of creative hypochondria – as if he was always on the point of losing his powers. He was a German Jewish refugee who escaped to England in 1936, at 16, and was fortunate enough to find his way to Oxford University. An outsider who deeply valued his insider status – a mirror of me, in the next generation, an insider, who values her outsider-ness. He became a medieval historian, but not the dry and dusty kind- he prided himself on his prose, at the same time as being desperately offended once when someone alluded to his ‘purple passages,’ as if his work were all surface flourish. But whenever he finished a piece of work, he would worry as to whether he could ever produce another of equal merit. He published one book – Rule and Conflict in an Early Medieval Society – a scholarly work, never destined for the bestseller charts, but he’d check on its sales in the only way available to him, this being a pre-internet age: he would go into Blackwell’s and count the copies on the shelf. He studied, lectured, wrote for forty years, and worried for all forty of them as to whether he would lose it, or ever make it. When, at the age of sixty-four, he was given a professorship, he finally had at least one worry-free moment: “I’m it!” he told a colleague, by way of sharing the news. And, having become ‘it,’ he died a few years later.
It strikes me now, as I recognise the same angst at work in myself, as a very male kind of anxiety – ‘How did I do? Was I good enough? Will I be able to do it again?’ – as if each creative act were singular and climactic – a one shot deal – rather than cyclical and iterative. Which is all very well, to lean into these reassuring biological narratives, but I have just turned 49, and my biology and cycles are becoming increasingly irregular and unpredictable. So, I am wondering how to keep going, what other stories I can find to help me, and if there is a less exhausting, worrisome way to move on in the aftermath of publication.
It is both wonderful and difficult that, as a mum to two high needs children, neither of whom are currently at school, stopping is not an option. Motherhood is one long aftermath – which is surely part of the picture in post-natal depression. The birth – the great happening – is just the beginning. The rest of everything after, involves carrying on. Tonight, my daughter needed help to barter with the tooth fairy – can she keep her tooth and still get a silver coin? Can I write a note to ask? My son wanted support with emailing a video game company, keen to offer them feedback on their demo of Street Fighter 6 (good, but it’s too easy to spam the ranged moves, apparently). These things, and others – many much more gruelling than writing notes to fairies or reviews for games- must be done daily, nightly, and they have helped me develop a kind of ‘keeping going’ muscle, which, like the heart, simply keeps contracting, come what may.
On the whole, I am grateful that I have this stubborn reflex to keep going, keep writing, and that because of it, I have begun to learn two things, of which I need to remind myself now. The first is that it is worth accepting almost any commission – notes to tooth fairies, emails to game companies – I will take them, write them all. It is even worth writing rubbish, especially when I am feeling rubbish – depressed, scared, angry, ashamed – you name it, if I start writing it, then perhaps, one day, the good stuff may turn up. And the second thing is that the good stuff does turn up. It always turns up, eventually. It’s like on stage, when doing an improvised scene, you don’t need to make trouble happen – it will come and find you. Drama, story, just has a way of happening.
This law – stuff turns up, story happens – makes me think of my favourite kind of stall at the annual fair I went to as a child in Oxford. Every autumn the fair arrived. It transformed St. Giles, so that it took me until adulthood to recognise it as the street down which my father walked to buy croissants and coffee. Many of the rides frightened me, but I loved the stalls that were festooned with cheap toys – huge inflatable hammers, colourful teddies, bubble blowers – and which promised, in large, painted letters: ‘A Prize Every Time’. There were two kinds – one where you were given a long-handled butterfly net, and in the centre of the stall, a cloud of ping pong balls miraculously hovered. You only had to catch one ball to win a prize. And then there was the ‘hook a duck’ kind – a bamboo pole with a silver hook on the end, and a pond on a pedestal with yellow ducks, numbers on their sides, hooks in their heads, bobbing about, waiting to be lifted clear of the water.
I like the ordinariness of this image. The tackiness. The idea that the secret to creative resilience could be summed up with ping pong balls blown upwards, or rubber ducks drifting in a pretend pond. It gives me a certain steadiness in the face of this vulnerable post-publication time, and in our era of constant online showcasing, feedback, and never-ending worry. The prize may be a cheap plastic toy – not the Booker or any other literary wonder- but it is somehow lovely to know that you’ll get one every time. It helps me know that’s it’s not over. It helps me to move on from standing on the shore, looking out for a sighting of the book, like an anxious parent beside the carousel – to use another fairground image – waiting to spot my child on its next rotation. It helps me see beyond to the bigger picture of this merry-go-round earth.
So look, here I am, nearing the end of my 93rd blog, which I thought I couldn’t write. And, “Look,” I want to tell my father, “You needn’t worry – some works do well, others not so much, life happens, trouble shows up, the world as we know it may be ending – but story keeps unfolding. There is always another ping pong ball to catch, yellow duck to hook – a prize every time.”
And here are your questions – your prizes- to take away this month:
How do you keep going in the aftermath of something? It could be anything – a piece of work, but also a birthday, any point in the calendar to which you have been heading and then it’s over, and you hadn’t thought about this time, but now it’s here…..?
What keeps you steady? Gives you resilience? What are the prizes you can win every time, every day?
And if you want to keep reading these blogs – because I will keep writing them – stuff will turn up – please sign up to my mailing list on my new website, where they will live from now.