Epiphany on me

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.

I took this photo when I went on a walk by myself along the beach in Lombok. It reminds me of a quiet, reflective period in my travels – appropriate for this post, which actually made me feel surprisingly emotional as I wrote it.

The write read

It’s a well-known fact that, for the most part, writing doesn’t pay. Or at least it doesn’t pay until you make it big, though you might be surprised by how few authors ever reach the heady heights of JK Rowling’s wealth, despite being on the best seller lists for weeks on end.

So what do aspiring writers do to make ends meet? Some sacrifice luxury and get a part time job in a cafe, devoting the rest of their time to writing in the hope they’ll have that much needed break and be catapulted out of their Hackney bedsit into a Hollywood condo.

Others, like myself, who have fallen into a relatively comfortable way of living and aren’t keen to suffer for their art to quite the extent of living below the poverty line, get a full time job. Days, therefore, are spent in an office, doing someone else’s bidding for eight hours or more at a time, and nights are spent trying to fit writing in amongst the other many competing priorities.

But I’m not complaining, and nor should anyone who is serious about making it as a writer, because if writing is your passion it shouldn’t be difficult to make time for it. What can be a problem for the aspiring writer, however, is what they choose to sacrifice to make time for their writing. In my case, I’ve realised that what’s all too often being sacrificed is reading.

I take my Kindle to work every day, but on the journey there often struggle not to be distracted by the free newspapers. I therefore spend the duration engrossed in the latest drama in Rihanna’s love life instead of making a start on the latest Booker Prize-nominated tome I’ve downloaded.

Before conceiving my 365 day writing challenge I would at least spend the return journey reading a good book, but in recent weeks even those few precious snatched minutes have been compromised, as I’ve spent them drafting that day’s blog post. What this means is that although I am now (at long last) writing regularly, when it comes to reading I’m not getting much further than the odd sensationalist tabloid press story – hardly inspirational stuff.

What’s troubling me is this: How can I even hope to be a good writer if I’m not seeing how it’s done by learning from the best? To use an analogy, imagine trying to ride a bike without seeing someone else do it first. It’s not that you couldn’t do it – if you had instructions you’d get there in the end – but the whole experience would be harder, and you might not end up cycling to the best of your ability.

The realisation that I’m not reading enough has made me see I need to reassess my priorities again; rather than substituting reading for writing I must make time for both, or risk my writing being so badly compromised that the heady heights of JK Rowling will always remain out of reach.

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This little badge represents me having completed my fourth National Novel Writing Month. It serves as a reminder of how important writing is to me – perhaps in light of today’s post I need a similar talisman for reading?