I see myself reflected
Yesterday I saw an old friend from high school — probably the first time I’ve seen her in twenty years, if I remember right. It was fun: though we’d never been close we slotted into easy conversation from the moment we saw each other. And overall, the conversation was (I hope) of interest to us both. But at the same time — to my slight surprise, since I generally think myself rational and clear-thinking — I was slightly awed by my friend’s clearheadedness, and wondered if some of my own contributions to the conversation were not so wise, eloquent or pertinent. That she appears to have “made something of herself” career-wise made her seem all the more adult.
One thing (of course, as always) made me especially uncomfortable: when she asked (early on, within the first few minutes) if I was “still writing”. What to say? Yes, of course, but no, not at all? Meaning I always write, I’ll always write, but not for twenty years have I monetised my writing (which, I presume, is what — or part of what — people are really asking when they ask after my writing). What do I write? Again I stammered: I self-published a “sort of a novel” a few years back, I said; and before she could ask the (I presumed) inevitable follow-up question, I clarified, “I didn’t bother submitting it to publishers because I presumed it would be too crazy,” and, “What the publishing industry needs is a good dose of DIY. Punk rock!” What else? I write book reviews, music reviews. I didn’t mention blogs, or journals — piles of journals — or unfinished stories, poems, memoirs.
We left the conversation hang there, after the point where I further clarified (apropos of nothing, since she hadn’t mentioned money or publishing or readership) that “soon” I would “have to” approach traditional publishers, not so much for the money (“I don’t need the money,” I said — not exactly true) but because I craved an audience. In other words, in seemingly every exchange I ever have re my writing — save, maybe, those that take place with other writers (or those who have the the gall and/or chutzpah to call themselves writers) — it is I who bring up the commercial angle, partly because past conversations have taught me this is foremost in many of my interlocutors’ (ie: my parents and older relatives) minds. But also partly for my own reasons — from my own internal sense of guilt, and failure.
I failed — I don’t think there’s another word for it. From playing gigs and getting radio-play when I was too young to attend the clubs my band played in; from being reviewed and featured in national newspapers for writing two prize-shortlisted novels by age 21; from being regarded — at least in my hometown — as some kind of a prodigy, I somehow, over the course of six months in Tasmania in 1997, “dropped out” entirely, broke up with the then-love of my life, and started washing dishes and selling books for a living in various locations, all the time presuming it (my lack of a professional artistic profile) was temporary.
To have made so little of my talents and of myself by any external measure of success. To owe my current comfort and (relative) lack of worry to my wife’s and her family’s largesse. To not be (financially, at least) “my own man”. To an extent, I like to think that I’m immune to such concerns, but then I catch myself playing the part of “freelancer” in the various cafés I frequent (not that there’s any material difference between how I behave and how a freelancer behaves — except that I handwrite — but I hope I’ll be taken for one; I try to project a solemn air of “working” at a serious task), and then I know my self-confidence is skin-deep.
But why guilty? My wife told me she felt the same the other day, when after 2–3 weeks of settling in and meeting with old friends and walking the kids to and from school and making sure they too were settled, she rode off through Hackney to Shoreditch and Spitalfields at my urging and, in between working at her graphic design in a café, explored London for the first time in years, and loved it, except for a nagging sense of guilt. But surely it’s right that she should enjoy herself when life offers her the chance to do so, especially if that enjoyment is not at anyone else’s cost and is not the sum-total of her life and input to society. I’ve often quoted — to my wife in particular — the first line of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”:
I lean and loaf at my ease
Observing a spear of summer grass
“Loaf” — I like that! When I washed dishes at a bar/restaurant in Vancouver in 2000, one of the line-cooks used to call me “the Australian loaf”, and though I wondered why (maybe because I was older than him, and had no ambition to climb the kitchen hierarchy) I got to liking it. I half-remember some philosophy of loafing, or a fragment thereof, that I read in something by Raymond Carver, in which he wondered aloud where the virtue was in work-for-work’s sake and extolled, however briefly, the virtues of loafing. And I think of a philosophy a hardworking northern Englishman I knew once professed, to the effect that so-called rockstars (we were speaking of oft-dissipated Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie) are heroes of a kind, because they do what they want, because they live life to enjoy it. And there’s no shame in that, at least not in that philosophy.
But me? I’ve fallen on my feet, repeatedly, but to what degree have I enjoyed life? At times it seems to me I wasted most of 10 or 15 years in misery, and though I love much of this life I now share with my wife, an ongoing artistic frustration eats at me like a fungus.
To return to last night and my school-friend, what I felt (or what worried me) was twofold:
1. I haven’t grown up, have I? I’ve never faced the question of a career, of my future. There’s something — an air of seriousness, of knowing who I am — that I should but don’t possess.
2. I’m so shy! So apologetic! Making excuses, explaining myself, underselling myself. When am I gonna get my groove back?!
It’s funny, when a friend on Goodreads reviewed Patti Smith’s memoir M Train (in which she sits in cafés and writes a lot) he wrote that Smith was “living the dream”, but while I can see why my friend (who works full-time in an office) might think that, what I sensed in that book was a palpable and familiar sense of depression. Such aimlessness, and isolation. Yet at the same time, M Train (like the recent novels of Gerald Murnane, like Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle) suggested to me a way in which I might move forward — by writing events as they unfold and thereby, maybe, influencing their outcome. Writing that shapes its writer’s life. But how to prepare for it, to approach it?
I’m waiting. I’m willing. I’m ready to go where it takes me.
(Handwritten Saturday June 10th)