Here we are in 2017! Today is Epiphany, Twelfth Night, the day of reversal and topsy turns. Earlier this week, I dropped an open bottle of scarlet nail polish all over the bathroom floor. My black patent boots got covered and I had to use nail pads to remove the scene of murder, easily sitting fifteen minutes, no other choice but to work before the polish congealed. It was peaceful on the bathroom floor, methodically using the small acetone-soaked pads to remove the streaks. So this is where I am finding my peace these days, I thought. Perhaps I should be worried.
I am not worried. I am not in the least surprised.
It is a nice thing to look back over twelve months and say, yes, you just about managed that, you achieved that, you excelled at that, and yeah babe, you pretty much bombed that, but look, you’re still here. I spent New Year’s Eve 2015 alone, in the bath, reading Joan Didion and drinking small glasses of port. I do think it’s a good thing to start the new year as you mean to go on. On New Year's Eve 2016 I took myself to the theatre, had an early dinner, excellent company and bed before midnight. Bliss.
In January last year, I was doing yoga every day for 90 minutes. Do you know what yoga every day for 90 minutes does to your body? I was pretty much ready for Pirelli. Alas, it didn’t last, of course it didn’t, because I’m not a saint, and sinning is the greater part of beauty. Then I went to Colombia, and it was every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be, and then I had the luck to travel solo into the Suriname, where in a granular, dusk-lit rainforest, I was told a jaguar might be waiting behind a tree. All women should travel solo. I have not felt that happy since I was six.
What else? Oh yes, in February I was publicly honest about how difficult it had been to handle, process and assimilate in real time some of the changes in my life. Namely, the strange and wondrous effects of The Miniaturist. I wrote about anxiety, my first tentative foray into putting that mental morass into words.
Elsewhere in the yearly spread, I learned better to understand my mother, discarding a laziness of perception that no longer was sufficient in my new circumstances. I saw her, and it brought a slotting peace. In fact, all my relationships have been recalibrated in the face of my experiences the last three years. Most have been painless. Some have not. But love is a tremendously enduring thing.
I tried not to be overwhelmed by love, by the great geysers of it, but I failed. Love, in all its excruciation, got me.
I looked my mental health in the eye and did not do enough to protect it. I burned out again, I suffered dehydration and a viral infection, but far worse, my anxiety came in huge and truly awful doses and in the end I had to cancel a few events. I am well aware of the places I had to cancel events, and one day, I hope to make up for that in those places. It wasn’t many, but I did feel terrible. I truly love having readers, and I did the best I could, a four-month publicity tour, two continents, five events in three days kind of thing, but by the end of September, the scrutiny and analysis, repetition and a sinking of myself led to physical damage and a deep sense of alienation, panic and an indefinable loss. The thing I want most to do in the world is write, and I agonised that if writing led to this kind of struggle, then what was the solution?
Balance. That is the solution. And writing, more than talking about writing. It’s too late for me to be an Elena Ferrante. I have thought much about authority, invisibility, how to synthesise the experience of life into fiction in the best ways I can, the ways that feel truest and strongest and will make a reader go with me and say, yes. A writer’s selfhood vies with her need to make herself invisible, in order to freely inhabit a simulacra of multiple lives in fiction (aka Ferrante), and work without worrying about her own received persona in all of it. A published writer has people pay to read the manifestations of her imagination, soul, and heart. For me, that remains extraordinary. It will always be the dream transaction for me, but it is also the most exposing, the rawest, unavoidable, supremely important fact in my life that I have battled desperately to understand and get a handle on these past three years. It’s a rockier path, certainly, knowing you are going to be held publicly accountable, knowing that your personhood will be as relevant to your artifices when it comes to talking about the work. I know I’m not alone in this battle and I am grateful to the other writers who have spoken to me about this on the way, sometimes reaching out without me even having to ask.
My own lack of anonymity when I publish is something I am coming to accept. I handed it over without even thinking about it. I made a pact with the kindly devil with my eyes wide shut, but I do not regret it. Having my novels bought and read has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes, however, the things that are best for us are not always the easiest. I do regret my inability to find my pause button, but maybe writing that regret here will enable me to locate that mysterious setting inside myself? I want to write, and write well, and that’s nearly all I ever want to do.
Lots of other things happened last year too, no doubt to be fictionalised somewhere. Life stuff, the stuffing of life; hard and soft, fibrous, strange; making me melancholy, ecstatic. Men and women made me marvel.
By the end of 2016, I admitted to myself that after two novels published, I really was a writer, and had been all along. And as much as I needed and wanted love, I really, really needed to make sure my life was the writing life. And the defining of that, the negotiation, the achievement of it and the continuation – needed to be open, honest and free with all the people in my life. No spoilers, but at the end of The Muse, Odelle Bastien has to make a decision about the apportioning of her creative self, her inner world, with her engagement with others on the outside. She makes a decision. I made a decision too.
I am pretty sure the negotiation of such a thing, the achievement of such a thing, is a lifelong undertaking.
To my utter delight, I was asked to write a children’s book. I cannot tell you the deep, deep pleasure this brought me – both the request, and the execution of it. I delivered the second draft on Christmas Eve eve. I am so excited for people to read it. There is a peacock in it called Saleem, and a King called Alberto, and a Queen called Laurelia who drives a motor car. It is a story about self-realisation, sisterhood, imagination, family, ingenuity, bravery, the lot. It is a fairy tale, twisted up and out of the Brothers Grimm, written by this Sister Grimm. It is full of fun and jazz music, it is full of sparkling lights, but like all fairy tales, it is rooted in our dark reality. We are currently in the process of arranging my words’ marriage to an illustrator, and believe me, this is one of the creative highs of my life. But because these illustrations are going to be that exquisite, we will have to wait to 2018 to see it published.
I made a new friend, a true friend. I think she is wonderful.
Yet, I became far more anti-social. I had been so saturated by the kindness of people and strangers, I craved my own company like it was heroin. So I really picked my friends, I saw who were my real friends. My love for them, my pride in them, their brilliances, their achievements, their souls and selves, have come to mean so much to me, as the dust settled on my hectic twenty-four months of mental health wobbles, publication, life changes, etc.
I came better to understand the life of an artist. Or, to be more specific, my life as an artist. I am deeply grateful to those people who helped me better understand. Some of them are writers and painters who have been dead for fifty years. Some much longer. Some are alive, though. It’s always good to have conversations with people who aren’t ghosts.
I became hungry again for literature, after living in the cogs of its business. I became a reader again. It felt like coming home.
I realised that Twitter has changed for me. That maybe I should only visit it on Fridays. Well, something about my use of it must alter. That it restrains me, the more visible I am, and I am not even that visible, compared to some. I prefer to live and work outside of the margins, and Twitter is firmly within the margins, and therefore arguably counter-productive to the creative mind. But I still like a lot of people on it, and they post super-interesting things I probably wouldn’t source myself. So. The dilemma continues.
I realised quite how powerful it can be when a woman writes her life. I began thinking deeply about the notion of duty as a writer, as a woman, as a person in this world right now. Duty. Is it really there? Must we write the truth? I think we should, but don’t look at it as duty. Look at as the opposite; a rebellion. And what is the ‘truth’ exactly – are we searching for verisimilitude, or honesty, or what? If I write a book and the main character’s name is Jessie, it’s still fiction, because it’s a book, right?
Mmm. An ongoing conversation. The books I have recently read (Artful by Ali Smith, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Sadeian Woman, The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, pieces on Helen Garner and Jenny Diski, Elena Ferrante, Frida Kahlo and Florine Stettheimer) set me on fire. The work of certain peers impressed me, wowed me. I am now so entirely excited by the possibilities of what I will write next. Probably because I am not fully writing it yet, ha!
It is unbelievably powerful to read a woman’s account of her creativity, her experience of the world. When I was 19 I wrote to myself that I was going to write, and even if they were the most ‘contrived and hackneyed sentences, I’m bloody well going to do it anyway.’ Even before that, I was writing so much poetry about love affairs, and I’m glad I did. Some are dreadful. But you know, some are pretty perceptive. A reader, aged 17, asked me, ‘should I burn my notebooks when I’m 20?’ And I told her, BURN NOTHING. I’m looking to find that searing, open confidence I had back then. Imagine having that creative confidence with all the added experience of 17 more years. This is what I mean when I say how powerful it is to read when a woman writes her life. We pass on what we learn, and also what we don’t yet know, what we hope and fear and dream. It’s an act of collective resistance. It’s also entertainment, and that’s important too. Earnestness closes ears. We've seen that on the public stages.
So, into 2017:
It remains to be seen whether I achieve any of these, but never mind. I wish you a very Happy New Year. May it be exciting, interesting, productive and enjoyable for you all.