All the way through my twenties and thirties I was haunted by the fact that I would never amount to a hill of beans because I hadn’t suffered enough. I didn’t think that a degree at a good university – any university – or subsequent creative writing study might help me. I just thought my life was too small, too ordinary to produce anything of written merit. I thought so all over again when early on New Year’s Day, I put down writing I admired and wrote to a friend “please tell me I don’t bore you and you don’t just come to see me on the duty/pity axis” adding “I am often like this when I have read writing I admire.” And then (if you’re me) you begin to examine what you are saying.
Among other things, I turned up the writer whose most recent work I admired (the first thing of hers I have ever read) and opted to read a notice of the book I had just read in a literary review. I have met the reviewer (no thank you) and I don’t like the publication but the review – wordy enough for civil service bumph with the runs – made me ask myself – where was I in all this?
The dramatization of suffering – whether because your parents don’t love you or aren’t your parents really, because you are hungry or have nowhere to live, because you don’t “fit” sexually, emotionally, physically – the dramatization of these things is endlessly interesting because if it doesn’t involve us, we can switch it off – close the book, hit the off button, leave the theatre or the cinema. It is within our control. In life, it’s not in our control which makes us feel vulnerable and then our responses to it vary, according to our personalities, our expectations and how things pan out. Suffering is in part about the perception of pain and it is comparative. As a young person I experienced suffering at one remove. I had no insight into my own. I could see it wasn’t good but I couldn’t see where I was in relation to it.
But I suppose in reading about this one in prison and that one a foundling, this one maltreated and that one ignored, and trying to connect that to painting, sculpture, writing, dance, artistic achievement I admired, I came to feel that suffering ennobled the spirit which then found expression in differing ways. It took another 20 years after that to begin to realise that there were different kinds of suffering, as there were different forms of artistic expression, that the one did not guarantee the other and that as the poet Yeats wrote “too long a sacrifice may make a stone of the heart.” Far from ennobling, suffering often brutalised.
And then I filed the whole argument because I was busy doing my best, just my best. I knew now I was never going to be the actor I had failed at being, the writer I hadn’t committed to be. I was going to work, grateful for every bit of it, even the few bits I didn’t like very much because by then (thank God for growing older) I had begun to embrace my father’s mantra – “did you learn something?” And I grasped the truth of the marketing remark “experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want” – yes – but you learnt something, about the situation, about yourself, about other people – endlessly interesting. And that was underscored by my mother who, when I asked what was the secret of her palpable youthfulness, answered “Enthusiasm, worth a hundred times any cream that was ever invented!” And part of that was the confidence to be enthusiastic, to say you didn’t know, to ask – and take the brush off you got when you got it which wasn’t very often.
See how far we have come from that hill of beans? “People like us should be paid for living” said a long ago boyfriend. I think of it every time I am able to be useful. This is much smaller, less easy to quantify or describe, infinitely more personal. What one person grasps with a sense of rescue makes another ask irritably “What are you talking about ?” We are probably not on a journey to or from but we are on a journey.