I don’t know many writers. I’ve met five in total, and they were a disparate handful. All of them verbally dextrous, all of them clever and thoughtful, but beyond that a diverse bunch.
What I think might unite us as a common core though is that writing is hard – you need to push against an invisible something that doesn’t want to move, and doing so exhausts some secret muscle you didn’t know you had. It requires you to exercise both your imagination and your emotions, stretching both to a degree where it starts to hurt. And beyond that, the sharing of that writing - which undeniably you have put something of yourself into, something personal and generally hidden – that sharing requires courage.
There certainly are people that like to over-share. People who will assault strangers with their intimate personal details, people who with the slightest provocation will shine an unwanted light on the mechanics of their close relationships or elaborate upon the most trivial and embarrassing of their medical complications. My limited experience of writers suggests that we’re not those people. Putting ourselves out there isn't an instinct - it's a gamble, a risk.
Ernest Hemmingway famously said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That is certainly an overstatement for me, but then again I won’t be counted a giant of literature a half century after I’m dead. It is true though that the occasions when it has felt like bleeding are the ones that led to the passages of mine that are most talked about and quoted.
To do that, and then to put it up for rejection, and failing rejection, to have it published and exposed to ridicule, requires courage. Just because you have felt something passionately, and what you wrote resonates back with you when you read it – does not mean it will echo in others or that it is well written. It’s a risk.
The penalty is nebulous and can be dismissed as insubstantial, but it has sharper edges than any reply that girl you asked to dance at the school disco ever gave you.
So to the theme of this post – Sarah invited a triumph over tragedy vibe, an insight into how life experience lensed into writing practice.
Clichés exist because there are things that are so true they bubble spontaneously from many sources. Clichés aren’t wrong, just over used. It’s a cliché to say that surviving a tragedy gives you a new perspective. The man still standing after a building has fallen all around him, or reprieved from some terminal condition, will tell us that the world looks different, that trivial concerns now seem exactly that, trivial, and will no longer tug at him. He will concentrate on what matters from now on, walk taller, be a better person. That’s how we feel at such times. There’s a half-life to it though. Good intentions slip, resolutions slide, and the world catches hold of us again by degrees, sinking innumerable petty little hooks into us.
My tragedy was largely vicarious. It’s my daughter’s tragedy. There’s a reaction against using that word in the same breath as disability because it can seem to belittle the person, to focus on what’s been lost rather than what skills and potential they have. I agree with that sentiment. My daughter was severely disabled by complications during her birth but she loves life, is happy as often as she can be, and is a tremendously valuable and wonderful person. She even has a picture-book in the semi-finals of the Goodreads Choice Award! But, none of that changes the fact that I will always feel that the random chance that stole her ability to speak, to walk, to hold, to eat, to sit, to see a horizon, and to grow without pain, was a tragedy.
She is not tragic - what happed to her was a tragedy.
And some small part of it was my tragedy too – and it made me feel like the man in the cliché. And whilst the world has stolen away much of that feeling of invulnerability – that false conviction that you’ve faced the worst and nothing now could hurt you – I retained some small measure of that courage. And it’s that courage, bolted to my original marginal stock, that tipped my hand, made me send my manuscript out, and made me smile whenever I got a bad (or sometimes hateful) review, knowing that in the grand scheme of things, and indeed in pretty much every minor scheme of things too, it really didn’t matter much. What mattered was that I’d said what I had to say, I’d drawn my line in the sand, and whether it lasted, whether it was noticed, whether that girl at the disco said no and her friends giggled behind their hands – I had taken my chance and would not regret doing so.