Keeping Up Appearances

Like good writing, I love feedback because it has the power to move me. Much of the best feedback moves me in directions I don’t want to go. Recently I’ve been told that I’m (a) not very friendly, (b) take things too seriously and (c) resemble Hyacinth Bucket – a character in a British TV sitcom (Keeping Up Appearances) who’s such a ridiculous snob that she pronounces her name ‘Bouquet’. Aside from the indignity of feeling like I’d had a bucket (or Bouquet) of cold water thrown in my face, what it did do was wake me up to some new realities and with them, new possibilities.

It’s exactly this wake-up-and-smell-what-isn’t-coffee effect that I appreciate most about getting feedback from others. In telling me what they see, hear or feel they touch parts of me I’m not aware of and wake up other parts once lived but have fallen asleep through lack of blood supply. I find it’s helpful to be awake, even if it hurts. Feedback is the no-nonsense nurse that rips the tourniquet off of your gangrenous leg. It’s served its purpose, she tells you, stopped you bleeding to death so that you could carry on (going to work, feeding the children, paying the bills etc). You probably won’t thank her while you’re squealing in pain but what is pain except another messenger asking for your attention?

This week I’ve been grappling with feedback on this blog. The most difficult thing for me to hear was that people had read what I had to say and cried. My first reaction – what’s to cry about? My second, I didn’t do it on purpose! In other words, denial swiftly followed by defence. So much for loving feedback!

A good friend of mine once said that the best thing to do with feedback is to look for the grain of truth in it. I find the first grain of truth when reading an interview with David Eggers, whose autobiographical work ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. He says he has no interest in writing another memoir, which he describes as cathartic but also as the proverbial opening up of a can of worms. I’m shocked to read that in Eggers opinion

‘There’s no such thing as closure. You open it up and you just get messy again.’

Or maybe I’m not shocked. Maybe I know this already. Maybe this is why, as far as autobiographical pieces go, I rarely read back over what I write. I do a little catharsis and quickly turn away. I let out a little blood and then tie that tourniquet back as quickly as I can. Which leads me to the next grain-of-truth. I hate being messy. I don’t like leakage.

Consequently, I should probably stop now, stop looking, stop writing and stop sharing in order that I can stop leaking. I should definitely stop blogging, which is, since it’s available for anyone to read, the worst possible kind of leakage. But I won’t. Can’t.

Ultimately what I see is that leakage is life and this is the way I do it best. In person I can come across as a Hyacinth Bucket, all neat and tidy and concerned with keeping up appearances. When I write, I’m raw and messy and concerned with the changing nature of truth. So from now on I’m issuing this blog with a health warning (Thanks D for that feedback) Caution. This blogger leaks. You may too.

Keeping Up Appearances

Writer’s Gap

Writer’s Gap

It was supposed to happen like this. I was thirty-three, still sexy (I thought) and the grey hair colonialists had not yet ventured inland. There was no need for henna control. I was a mum and I was writing, enjoying the feel of my words on the page, thinking they tasted fresh, not perhaps as fresh the writers I admired most, but somehow comfortably crunchy. I thought I was okay with being the lemon puff to Zadie Smith’s tarte au citron. I planned to write (thought-provoking) stories, that would organically stretch into a novel, which would be poignant and well received. At the time this did not strike me as grandiose. I knew I was occasionally depressed but never (in my opinion) delusional. I would have described myself a realist. I exercised restraint in matters of ambition. Maybe I wouldn’t make Oprah’s book club but one day I thought it reasonable to assume that someone would come across me on a library shelf (ebooks had yet to be invented) and decide to take me home. If it worked out well, they’d read to the end and email me to say something nice and encouraging, possibly ask for more. If it worked out really well, I might get paid.

Ten years have passed. I’m greyer, saggier, a little less sexy perhaps. I see grandiosity where I didn’t it before. It was always there I think, though disguised as expectation. An expectation that the words would line up more easily and be better dressed. An expectation that they would visit more frequently and enjoy the bright lights of public exposure. In reality they were agoraphobic and struggled to make it out of the front door. I began to doubt that they would succeed in reaching the end of the street, much less the library. What to do with words that won’t leave the house? Pamper them with TV and crosswords. Cram them in a diary. Make shopping lists. After all, what’s wrong with being a bit shy? I agreed with them that the world was a dangerous place where people would look aghast and point fingers, at their shabbiness, at the holes in their shoes, at their tired clichés and surplus adjectives. The solution? Stay home and avoid embarrassment.

A yawning gap stretched itself between what was good enough and what was possible, between the words I could be proud of and the ones I could actually produce. A gap wide enough for a writer to commit suicide before she’s born. A writer’s gap in which the only question is choice.

Choice. Is it time to put the pen (or keyboard or notebook) away and admit defeat (I can’t be a writer because what I write isn’t good enough)? Or is it time to write what isn’t good enough and be unapologetically inadequate? Should I wait for the words to grow up and old so that when I’m senile or dead my children can read what’s left of them through layers of dust and wonder why? Or should I pick them up by their quivering spines, wish them luck and send them out to play? What will I do, watching the playground as the words of my heart run the gauntlet of kicks, taunts and bullies?  Say, ‘at least you’re being read?’

I send them, weeping, through the front door, fighting the urge to claw them back, wipe their faces over again, retie their shoelaces in perfect loops. I want them to look their best and I want the best for them. Nothing less than the world conquering best. And just in case that’s not how it goes, I tuck a benediction in their empty pockets; May you see the sun, find a friend, get invited at least once to spend the night.

Writer’s Gap