Every so often when I’m engrossed in a book, or lost in a song that’s so beautiful the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I get a sudden rush of overwhelming anxiety. Why? Because in that moment it dawns on me that I will never be able to read all of the amazing books in the world, or hear all of the glorious music that’s been produced over the many years since music began. It’s obvious, of course, but whenever I think about it for any length of time it’s still a sobering enough concept to take my breath away.
Phase two of this bizarre anxiety involves my ruminating that I haven’t read the right kind of books, or listened to the right kind of music. As I’ve grown up – and I should point out at this juncture that I still find it hard to accept that I am, in fact, grown up. Indeed when the prodigal and only child of the family returns home for a familial visit my parents also often have some difficulty believing this – I’ve always thought my capacity and hunger for knowledge would increase and my tastes would mature, not unlike a fine wine.
By my early thirties I was certain I’d have moved beyond childish chick lit ‘novels’ and the kind of soulless popular music that’s relentlessly and indiscriminately spewed out by endless commercial radio stations. I would, I thought, be reading Proust and Tolstoy, listening to Beethoven and Chopin, spending my spare time studying philosophy and going on cycling holidays to French vineyards with my similarly-inclined peers.
But alas, ‘twas not to be. At thirty one I’m ashamed to admit I still spend most weekends drinking cheap cider and falling out of clubs (playing – you’ve guessed it – popular music). I still haven’t read most of the Orange and Booker Prize-shortlisted tomes I acquired some years ago in a fit of pique at my own ignorance of the workings of the literary world (‘you want to be a writer!’ I’d scold myself. ‘How can you write without reading the works of the great writers?’) And the sum total of my knowledge on classical music and wine would fit on the back of a postage stamp (and still leave room to spare).
The interest in politics and international affairs that I thought was a rite of passage of getting older never quite materialised. Nor the savvy business mind which would easily decipher tax codes, pensions and such like. Instead of a one woman dynamo I stand before you as an empty, muddled and ignorant shell. I am a caterpillar that failed to undergo metamorphosis and turn into a butterfly. I am a Monopoly piece that didn’t pass Go.
I suppose a psychologist would say that the root cause of my anxiety is my feeling small and insignificant, not knowing my place in the world and worrying I will never make my mark. And I suppose with that analysis they would be pretty spot on (in fact I’ve surprised myself by trotting that out without too much thought and whilst simultaneously wondering what to cook for my dinner – who says we women can’t multitask? Oh, I did, in yesterday’s post. Damn).
But hang on just one cotton picking minute. What about the things I have achieved, the books I have read, the music I have listened to? What about the friends I’ve made, the stories I’ve written, the places I’ve visited? I may never know my Beaujolais from my Fleurie, or be able to discuss the merits of Aristotle’s theories over Plato’s. I may not develop a discerning ear for classical music, know the background to every international conflict or be the next Jane Austen. But I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll write for pleasure, read for pleasure and continue listening to music that makes my hairs stand on end – even if I heard it on Radio 1.
And above all else I’ll do my best to be a good person and make other people happy. Because no amount of knowledge, maturity and finesse can make up for not being able to do that.
Soberingly authentic. I liked it.
Just as an aside on the subject of having to read good writing to, in turn, produce it, I disagree with (what I assume to be) the majority here. Sure, good books and classics can certainly inspire you and show you what they did right, but don’t good writers become good writers by thriving on what they themselves write? I don’t know, the informal mandate to read the classics OR ELSE YOU’LL NEVER BE A REAL WRITER is trite and only serves to embiggen those who like to insinuate “I’ve read more books than you, nya-nya.”
Thanks so much for commenting. I think I feel a pressure to read the classics though deep down I’m inclined to agree with you that it shouldn’t have to be the only way to be a great writer – our own life experience should be rich enough to make us into excellent writers. The rest should be a bonus not a necessity. Unfortunately snobbery is still rife within the industry, so I suppose I feel I should have read the greats to ‘get ahead.’ I also feel I ‘should’ read the prize nominees/winners to see what’s getting published at the moment and get a better understanding of what publishers and agents are looking for. Problem is there just aren’t enough hours in the day – and if we spent all our time reading other people’s work we’d never write anything of our own!