sixteen: letter to myself

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Let me start at the beginning. I smile when I look at your face. That photo of you, hand on an open book, eyes wide and glinting. You are so happy to have found that people know what you’ve known for a while; you are good at something. Specifically, you are good at writing. That’s what your smile is about. Look at me, I’m a writer.

Right now, at sixteen, you think that’s all you need to know. You think that’s all you’ll ever need. You are convinced that the pathway of your life is lined with books, every piece of stone underneath your feet a page of words. Of course. You see things very clearly, and that is exactly what you see.

You think you’ll have written your first novel by the time you’ve finished university. Or at least have started it. You have no idea what you’ll do at university, or what the point of university is, but you’ll go there, because it seems the obvious thing to do. It’s an interlude on the way to writing your first novel. Because that will happen, it’s only a matter of time.

You wonder briefly if you should have a better idea of what you want to “do” when you finish school, in that official kind of earn a living kind of way. You absolutely do not want to be a teacher. You wonder if you might like to be psychologist. You don’t know exactly what a psychologist is but you went to one the year your mother tried to stop you seeing your father and it was fascinating. You were eight and sat spellbound in a wide chair while the psychologist asked you questions you still remember thirty-two years later.

On the spur of the moment at the end of your last year at school you stop by the careers office to ask about the difference between psychiatry and psychology. The woman barely answers your question, certainly fails to articulate any difference, and then tells you that you’ll do well at whatever you do. Somehow this confirms your vagueness. You are awash in a sea of possibility, no fixed options, no definite horizons.

So you go to university, do the things you are already good at, and avoid anything you might fail. You think about doing Psychology 101 until you find out that there are labs involved, and rats, and you change your mind immediately. Because you don’t do science. You say it’s because the subject is boring and you are squeamish. But really it’s because you struggle to retain facts. You need a story to hold them all together. You know about stories.

What you don’t know anything about, dear girl, is your brain. You have no idea that the way you doubt yourself before you go to open a door (is it push or pull?), the way two pieces of information can swap places in your mind without you even realising, the way you forget which colour toothbrush is yours, forget what day it is… that none of it is your fault.

So it’s no wonder you are smiling. You’ve spent your whole life trying to hide how stupid you really feel. Stupid, forgetful, clumsy, careless, silly. Stupid. You’ve been wrong so many times you can’t even begin to count. But you can write. Finally, something you can do. And when you write, you feel as if you are flying. So of course you are going to be a writer.

But not a journalist. Definitely not a journalist. You say it’s because you don’t want to work at the local paper writing stories about blocked drains. But actually it’s because deep down you believe that you are incapable of writing non-fiction. You can’t trust yourself to get the facts right, or in the right order. And you don’t even know what day it is, half the time.

So by the time you finish school you know this much. You definitely do not want to be a teacher. You do not want to be a journalist. You’ll go to university because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You might do psychology, except that would be science, and you don’t do science. So you’ll do all the things you already know how to do. And bide your time until that first novel arrives in perfect form on your doorstep. You know it’s on the way.

But what you don’t know is that at some point in those three lonely years at university, even some of the things you are good at won’t go so well. One day you get a C plus for a history essay and something inside of you closes shut. No more history. The next year you get a B for a Shakespeare essay and something else inside of you closes shut. No more Shakespeare. You do politics, when you could have done psychology, and you tell the tutor that it feels like maths. You think it’s a cute joke. She looks at you like she has no idea what on earth you are doing sitting in her office.

But you decide it doesn’t matter. You get through your final year with the barest effort. You do a creative writing paper, thinking that this will give you your first novel, but it only makes you more disillusioned. You are the most recalcitrant writing student. You don’t want to play games with words.  You tell yourself the B’s don’t matter, the bad feedback from your famous writing tutor doesn’t matter, none of it matters because you are going to be a writer. No matter what they say.

It helps that you’ve realised there’s something else you like to do. You like to think and talk about God. You feel called. You feel like there’s room for the whole entire world in your heart. And for a brief dark moment you abandon writing altogether. Why would I want to spend all my days in a room by myself? You say. And so you devote yourself, compulsively, to the work of saving the world.  And unfortunately, no matter how much you strive to throw yourself towards the light, your world slowly becomes darker and darker, and smaller and smaller. Until you have nothing left to give.

It’s not the first time you’ve been depressed, you realise. Now you know the name for that internal darkness that came every evening at dusk the year you turned eight. The two darknesses, the inner and the outer, went hand in hand. You remember sitting on the lounge floor with your mother after dinner, and looking up at the wooden light fitting in the centre of the room. To you, it was a skull and cross bones. It just looked that way, as the heaviness came down over your small frame. But you couldn’t tell her, and she never asked.

I’m on your side now, dear girl. I worked against you for a long time, I’m sorry to admit. I was desperate for approval from that mother of yours, and I needed you to comply. I made you do things you didn’t want to do. I made you hide feelings you should have talked about. I made you pretend you were ok. I made you so tired with all the trying to be good and normal and popular and organised. I hurt you.

The best thing I can do for you now is what I know I can do; be the parent. It’s been more than ten years since my first baby and I think I’m slowly figuring things out. The best thing I can offer you now is my love. If you let me, I’ll take you into my arms and hold you. And tell you everything is going to be ok. I’ll tell you that yes you can write but there are so many other things you can do. Like think. And notice. And teach, funnily enough. You’ve got a long road ahead of you, I want to tell you. But you’ll get there. And when you look back it will all make sense.

It is a long road, from sixteen to forty. There are plenty of years in between. A lot of waiting and hoping, thinking that the novel would be just around the corner. And it’s been a surprise to find that even now the novel is here, beautiful thing that it is, it’s still not quite here. The novel’s not ready, I’m not ready. I’ve still got so much to learn.

You see what you don’t know, what you can’t possibly understand, is that you are working very hard to appear some kind of normal, when really you are anything but normal. What you can’t see, and what you won’t see for a long time, is that the mother you love desperately, the one you can’t escape, the one you are afraid of, the one whose displeasure sends chills down your spine, has hurt you so badly you can’t trust yourself to think straight.

You’ll need to let her go for a while, when you’re ready. You’ll need to find out what it means to be yourself, to own your own space, to have autonomy, volition, agency. You’ll need to separate from her to do that, dear girl, as awful as it will feel when the time comes. You’ll need to get out from under the shadow she’s cast over you for forty years. And when you do, everything will change.

The novel, you’ll realise, is not done yet. You wrote it in half-shadow, living in half your brain. Don’t be afraid to pull it apart, put it to one side even, for a time. You’ll find the next story just comes, that your pen wants to keep moving on the page. After all, you’ve never stopped writing.

And you’ll want to go back to university. You’ll feel giddy at all the space you realise is there in that funny brain of yours, and you’ll be itching to fill it. Not just with images and fragments and bits of every novel you’ll ever write, but bookshelves lined with books that are labelled, ordered, a library. Only this time you won’t be afraid of what you think you can’t do. Because you’ll have realised that you could always do most of it anyway, with a bit of help and a lot of self-understanding.

It’s like starting again, at the very beginning. As if forty was always going to be a good year. It would seem an age away, if someone told you. If someone told fresh-faced sixteen year old you that nothing would make sense until forty you would resist it with every ounce of your being. There’s no way I’m waiting that long! You would say. So I won’t tell you that. I’ll just smile and tell you I love you. I’ll tell you that you are beautiful, and intelligent. And one day it will all make sense.