Featured Image: Etienne Girardet
I’ve been struggling to write the last few months. Well, the truth is that I write every day in some form or another, but I don’t feel that I have been particularly productive this year. The work that has gone to print was available online last year, and I’ve waited patiently to hold the hard copies in my hands after COVID. This past year has seen the evolution of my doctoral thesis into a manuscript, thereby drawing to a close a project that I started nearly ten years ago. Much of the writing I have been doing recently has been about taking stock in an attempt to narrow down and focus on a new project. And there are other possibilities, if I can just shake this feeling of restlessness.
It’s no coincidence that I am feeling like this now that we are at the tail end of a global pandemic, accompanied by emotional, physical, and economic upheaval. Most of us were caught up in a jumble of intense emotions as we dealt with loss, anxiety and depression, isolation and separation from loved ones, fear of contracting the virus, and fear about the future. While many of us were able to work from home, many more lost their jobs and livelihood as a result of rolling lockdowns. Many lessons have been learnt and adaptations to the pandemic, like working from home or shorter work weeks, may well become permanent. It’s as if the world as we knew it has changed irreversibly and we are experiencing a kind of post-pandemic stress disorder.
Writing in the Financial Times in April 2020, Indian author Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
And so back to writing…
My recent participation in a writers’ festival (my first!) was very much about seeking inspiration while replenishing my writing toolbox. I was challenged to think about what inspires me to write, what impact I would like my writing to have, why I am different to other writers, and why people should care about my work — very thought-provoking challenges.
The simple fact is that I write because it helps me to make sense of the world around me. Putting words down on paper gives them substance — ideas become more real, dark thoughts can lose their power and jumbled thoughts may settle into a clearer pattern.
Through writing, I have made decisions about surgery, a new direction in my career, or simply let go of negative thoughts.
I must confess to a serious stationery fetish, though, which may be a big part of the reason that I write! It probably goes back to school days when the beginning of the year brought new uniforms and shoes, a new school bag with an assortment of writing utensils. And the stack of books that had to be covered with brown paper, decorated with pictures cut out of Christmas and birthday cards, my name printed in calligraphy by my father and then, finally, covering the book with plastic. The smell of new books, the sharpness of new pens and pencils, the promise of a blank page, all signal new beginnings, new opportunities to learn, to achieve, to make my parents and grandparents proud.
Part of my stocktaking the last few months has been sifting through a motley assortment of journals going back twenty years — a process complicated by the fact that every time something momentous happened, I took a trip or reached some milestone, I would feel obliged to start a new journal, and then later feel guilty about the half-empty previous journal and go back to fill its pages.
The best part of attending the writers’ festival was being in a community of writers and not feeling that I need to defend my right to call myself a writer. Not once during the weekend! Usually, when I tell someone that I’m a writer the response is, “So, what do you write?” Followed by whether I have written anything that they would have read. There is a distinct implication that not being traditionally published makes you less of a writer, or not a “real” writer. Recently I’ve been saying that I’m on a gap year, which is also met with disbelief as if a 60-year-old woman cannot do any such thing! Well, I did recently finish studying, followed by a year of post-doctoral research, and have been writing and travelling.
For a whole weekend at the festival in York, I had fascinating conversations with people starting with the question, “So what are you writing at the moment?” I met a British woman who had been married to a South African politician and lived here in the 1970s, a man who was writing about colonialism in Sri Lanka, writers of fantasy, food, children’s and young adult books, memoirists, and every other genre you can think of. It was wonderfully empowering to be accepted into a community of writers.
On a more serious note, I write because I have a story to tell about living during a certain historical period in my country and I believe that if I share my story, it gives someone else permission to tell theirs. I think that my writing bears witness so that people can feel heard and validated. For me, it’s very much about saying, this is how it felt for me, how did it feel for you? I would like my writing to make a difference to at least one person who will, in turn, tell their story to another, and so on, until all our stories are joined and we recognise ourselves in each other’s stories. Let’s imagine the world anew.