My early attempts at writing came as a response to a deep internal struggle and existential crisis. I was a mess, confused, depressed, my own worst enemy. How could I survive in a complex world if I felt like this all the time?
At one point I remember my mother finding me collapsed on the bedroom floor, unable to move with the weight of despair that had enshrouded me. On the bedside table was a box of Nurofen tablets. When she asked in fright what was going on I assured her that I hadn’t taken any. Unsure what to do, she organised a hasty appointment with a doctor on call.
As I sat in his office feeling dazed and bewildered I listened numbly as he offered his advice. A soft spoken man from somewhere in Africa, his soothing tones put me at ease. He prescribed a course of anti-depressants, but suggested that a healthy diet and some exercise might also be effective.
When we left I told my mother I did not want fill the prescription right away. Instead I kept the prescription docket in my wallet – “just in case”. Despite the confusion and apathy I was feeling, some part of me knew that pills weren’t the right answer.
As a male twenty-something I was painfully aware of quite a few cases of my peers taking their own lives. I could empathise with what they might have been going through. The crazy self-talk, societal pressures and poor lifestyle habits could drive you insane. I felt insane a lot of the time although my outward actions were not that noticeably erratic. It was trying to keep the internal battle under control that took so much work. But through this state of unrest I was determined to find a safe way out.
I’ve spoken before of how the process of journalling helped me to untangle some of my internal knots and provided a source of hope and empowerment. It was through the act of venting and exploration on the page that I could transcend my daily concerns and touch upon loftier ideas that proved a rich source of inspiration. I discovered a therapeutic feeding ground and a place that harboured an intrinsic reward worth developing.
“Who am I?”, “What is the meaning of my life?”, “What is the right thing to do?”
These are the kinds of questions that preoccupied my mind for many years. I would open up my notebooks and start poking around at these issues with a stick to see what would emerge.
After much soul searching the best answer I could come up with at the time is that “the meaning of my life is found in the story I tell of it”.
That in itself presented many more questions than answers, but with writing as my vehicle I could at least attempt to traverse the issue in a more focused way. I spent many long hours journalling my thoughts and experience, which served a certain purpose, but inevitably, the process of writing begs the question – what or who is all this for? Am I merely writing as a solitary exercise to figure myself out, or is there something more I can communicate to others? Can I justify this preoccupation in some other way? Do I have a book in me?
With time, ideas coalesced and new ideas formed. Eventually an idea landed that sent tingles up my spine and presented itself as the culmination of my life’s work. I was intoxicated with the feelings of where this idea took me. A profound, interconnected vision that answered the highest urge I had been seeking. It served as a vessel to contain all my life’s experiences and validated the material covered in my exploratory journals thus far, and present them in a structured and deeply integrative way. This was my life’s work, my calling, what I was here to do.
This was pretty heady stuff and after a few attempts at writing this material I crashed and burned. Ideas can work so neatly in the mind but once you try to bring them out in the open, reality hits and you are met with a series of limitations and constraints that seem to mangle the once pure thought. I started writing non-sense that seemed to deviate greatly from the original intention. As my vision became cloudy and obscured I couldn’t see what this thing was meant to be anymore. What format would it take? From what voice would it be communicated? Then the doubts crept in that gnawed away relentlessly and made the whole endeavour seem impossible.
Eventually I had to abandon the grand idea and get on with other things.
But curiously, as I found, that didn’t get me off the hook. Something of the initial kernel of inspiration seemed to stick and has haunted me ever since. Every now and again I experience something that gives fresh insight, reignites my interests and helps me put down a few more markers to illuminate the path.
Frustrated by earlier attempts to write a book, I needed another way to approach this elusive idea. It has been unclear to me how exactly to go about this, and that is why I started this blog – to help figure things out in a less formal way. With a tangible process I stand a chance of gaining greater clarity and dispelling some of the incessant doubts along the way.
It was something someone said to me recently that helped resolve some of my concerns and reshape my notions of what this work might be about and how to convey it.
“I wish he had just written a memoir”, said my mother in reference to the manuscript her father had written which she is now trying to get published posthumously. Her remark was a comment on the writing style of her father’s manuscript. It was the passages of personal experience related by him in the first person that ultimately were more readable and interesting.
My mother’s comment gave me a certain confidence in the validity of personal writing, something I have struggled to reconcile in my own work. Where before I attempted to mask my identity by speaking through a contrived voice, or doubted the relevance of my subjective view, now I feel a little more at ease with relating simple personal experience from a more authentic voice.
There was something more to this conversation with my mother that hardened my resolve to push forward with my writing. The manuscript mentioned above was a piece of work that preoccupied my grandfather up until his final years. Since then it had resided as a collection of handwritten sections in a series of 6 red folders which I managed to come across several years ago. What sparked our conversation was that my mother now had a freshly transcribed version in digital format that she was finally able to read in its entirety and share with me.
This was very exciting news for me, as it was this very manuscript that has inspired much of what this blog is setting out to explore, and something I will return to again and again to forage for fresh insight.
Speaking to my mother about her father’s work which now serves as a muse for my own felt like connecting the links of a chain that had somehow become undone. There exists a tenuous thread of the written word that binds us. However subtle, that connection feels like one of the most profound things in my life.
My mother has her own manuscript written when taking a sabbatical from her work as manager of a bookshop – one in a chain of family owned bookshops. It remains unpublished, though not for lack of trying.
When I reflect on this I cannot help but recognise the family inheritance – a certain challenge surrounding the issue of getting published. But it is not my immediate goal to get published, rather to explore the merits of writing in less conventional ways. By that I mean that I have never taken the idea of becoming a professional writer seriously, but cannot deny the immensely powerful effects of the practice. It is this mindset that has contributed to my stop start progress with writing, but also to a different quality that I can only reference as some sort of therapeutic creative enquiry through the written word.
I’m searching for clarity and meaning and I’ve found that some of the most potent sources of guidance have been through those things most immediate to me – my self and my family.
In the next post I’ll dive a little deeper into the family legacy and introduce you to Ithaca, the muse behind this journey.