My birthday week. I sit every day at the little white table overlooking the sleepy fishing harbour surrounded by a suspiciously blue sky, re-reading and re-writing. It’s subtle, my agent had said. Just nail exactly what it’s about and you’re done. After years of intimate entanglement with this novel, it’s like I’m being asked to sum up my whole life. When I need to see beyond the words, my gaze comes to rest on a jutting cliff edge, overlooking the Mediterranean. Then one day, just like that, there are no words left. I put down my pen, fold away the manuscript and, with a sense of deep sadness, find myself staring at the cliff.
It’s a walk away, along a dry Southern Portuguese dirt road, the arid landscape of the Wild West. I pioneer on putting one sandalled foot in front of the other. The higher I climb, the more intense the wind. It’s strong enough to lift me off my feet and dash me down the cliff face. No-one knows I am here. No-one would find me if I disappear. The world is on erotic charge. I arrive and all that’s left is me, the edge and the horizon. I laugh hard. Then I do the only thing I can. I stick my headphones in my ears, crank up the music and dance wildly as the tired fishing boats tug by beneath.
“I like to live always at the beginnings of life, not at their end”, writes Anais Nin in the forth volume of her diaries. Me too. I’m not a completer/finisher. It’s the promise of potential that gives me a buzz. As a coach I spend most of my time working with potential. People come to see someone like me to help unlock and articulate their desires. The anticipation of a new story is my drug. I would rather not be around for the final evaluation, thanks very much. I rush my endings in writing and life out of a fear of them. Endings are often messy and sad and sometimes the fear of an ending can stop me beginning.
When I began The Sacrifice over three years ago, I didn’t contemplate the real moment of sacrifice. I didn’t imagine what it would be like to say goodbye to a world I had created which was, at times, more real than the one I live in. It was giving life that spurred me along that lonely writing road, breathing air into the lungs of characters, making plotlines more fertile, adding fuel to the flames of conflict – writing is all about generating life. I hadn’t considered that I would, one day, have to close the door on a world that only I am intimately connected with and so would bear the loss alone. If I had thought about the ending, would I have even chosen to begin?
I coach many people who are caught in a similar dilemma. They would like to commit to writing but do not. They don’t have a trust fund and so can’t responsibly quit their day job. They’re not 100% sure they’re talented enough and so won’t waste time trying. There are many blocks that stop us committing and maybe the foreshadowing of loss is at the core of them all. I walked alongside a canal with a client on a crisp day, as she ruminated on her own situation. She had discussed her options many times with her boyfriend and their talks always led to the same dead end. With their financial situation as it was, they decided she couldn’t quit her demanding job and give writing a real go. I suggested we try an exercise in which she would physically locate her writing goal somewhere in the distance then we would walk toward it. When we were two feet away from her selected spot, she stopped, as if the final steps would be too painful to take. Finally she did take them and stood silently on her place. It wasn’t until we made our way back to our departure point that she finally spoke, “I know what’s really blocking me. If I want to write seriously, I must let go of my relationship.”
It took a lot of courage to articulate what many of us cannot, that to become serious artists we may have to let go aspects of our old selves. We may need to abandon our concepts of security, change our relationships and behaviours, contravene other’s expectations and society’s view of success. It is akin to the loss I felt closing the door on the world I created in my novel. Writing requires us to end before we can begin. This is probably why it feels like a terrifying, revolutionary act for many of us. Deep down, we know that if we put ourselves on the page, parts of us will fall away and, very few of us countenance that kind of loss.
Not many of us can claim to be as clear-sighted as Haruki Murakami who on the day he decided to become a writer also made drastic alterations to his life. He quit managing a jazz club in Tokyo, moved to the country, said farewell to many of his friends and took up running. He consciously prepared his ending before he began, embracing the fact that old habits must die if new ones are to grow.
Most ancient cultures have mourning rituals as their foundation. The Lakota Indian believe that if the proper rituals are not observed then it leads to ghost sickness, a psychosomatic state that can leave people unwell for generations to come. It is a human need to create a space for reflection after someone or something has died, to give time to emotionally purge and celebrate the life left behind. When we move through a life change, there is a similar need to grieve for the parts of ourselves that are no longer and yet we often do not recognize it. This suppression of grief can lead to a type of ghost sickness, an inability to feel confident about our new selves, a yearning for the comfort of who we once were.
Finishing my first novel taught me much about endings. It taught me about the need to prepare for and celebrate them as much as I do the beginnings. I will now make a ritualistic art out of my mourning period, remaining conscious of what I’m letting go and what I’m making way for. I look forward to finding that edge again that looks out toward the horizon, cranking up the music and dancing up all those new stories out of the dust.
Anais Nin would like this. She would say this is how it is meant to be because the ending for us is, of course, just the beginning for our readers. It is when our “dream is planted in others, others begin to live it too, it is shared, it is the beginning of friendship and love.”
This series will map the internal process of writing borrowing from Gaylene Gould’s coaching work with writers and her own experience. It will look at a range of blocks, frustrations and fears and offer some ideas of how to challenge them. www.writetalklisten.com