Ten weeks ago I spoke on the phone to a new agent, a lovely, kind, warm agent, who seemed less intimidating than the last agent, except for being a literary agent and all, which kind of makes people intimidating.
I had just written a piece about being frozen; the girl who walked everywhere and now couldn’t cross a road. I stood instead, frightened on the curb as the traffic rushed by, wondering how I ever had the courage to just walk, to know something wouldn’t hit me. One time, in August, I started to cross a road while talking to a friend, when suddenly a van drove at us, and instead of running, I froze, arms in front of my face. The van didn’t stop and my friend grabbed my hand and dragged me stumbling forwards, as he drove past, angry. And it occurred to me, Oh God, it’s really loaded this crossing the road thing. This combined somehow in a sort of anti-alchemy with a recent terrible bereavement, a miscarriage and the general terror of 2020, to cause me to literally become frozen. My world had turned to ice.
The agent, someone I had spoken to before, told me she loved the piece. We spoke on the phone, twice, and I agreed to write a collection of essays about uncertainty, one a week, for ten weeks, only then I didn’t do it.
I wanted to. Every day I said I would. It’s like I want to cross the road, standing thinking and fretting on the pavement, but like with crossing the road, I just got myself deeper and deeper into a state of terror. If something feels important, loaded, huge, the doing becomes much harder. Sometimes I wonder what a heart would do, say, if you told it how important it’s job was? Would it be so appalled it would stop? Is that how heart attacks happen? I know it can’t be, but sometimes I wonder.
One time I hit a pin at a bowling alley which my friends had been trying to hit for the last half hour. It was the only one standing, and I walked in and heard them talking about how they couldn’t do it, and I just picked up the bowling ball and threw it straight and hit. I knew I would, and didn’t hesitate, and it’s weird because I’m one of the least spatial people I know, but there was something about not thinking, about knowing, about picking it up and throwing it. Because thinking makes things scary, and being scared makes things hard, if not impossible.
It’s strange, and apt, I guess, that uncertainty is what my book is about, and yet I am too uncertain to write, wavering on the side, unsure how to step in, where to begin, tripping over the words even as I put them on the page. With my novel, the one I wrote, and rewrote until it fell to pieces, I used a timer; a little cool metal egg, which I twisted in one hand, and after an hour the alarm would go off. I had less time then, what with working full time in the library which is now closed, but it felt more precious, not this soupy sea of timeless time we have been gifted by the horror of Covid. I sometimes think of the library sleeping, all the books unread. Last lockdown I went and stood by the gates, and posed for a photo. I didn’t want to face the camera, so David took a picture of the back of my head, as I peered through the tall iron gates, wondering when they would open again.
I was wrestling with my novel again, then, even as it crumbled, but it was summer and things felt not too bad, except the library was closed.
One time, years before lockdown, I came into the library really early. The hour hadn’t changed or anything, but I misread the time, or my phone reset and was wrong, and somehow I ended running up the steps from the cowgate, thinking I was late, at eight o clock, rather than one minute past nine, confused by the quiet, feeling somehow like a ghost, a traveller out of time.
The library gave something to my writing, and now, it is sleeping again. But there is something else too, an unsureness, an uncertainty.
My partner and I are going through infertility. Every month I hope, and every month it’s dashed, except for the month one year ago when it wasn’t dashed, only to be lost a week later. Somehow I feel like my inability to conceive, to carry a baby, is all tied up with my writing, that if I can write and run and move freely through the world, once again, the baby thing will happen. It feels superstitious, silly in some lights, similar to the strange OCD rituals I have, like looking for an A in the number plate of a passing car to indicate something good will happen, or when in a darker place, that something bad won’t. And yet I feel it, strongly, overwhelmingly, even as I trip on words, on pavements, on thoughts. Even as I feel pulled back, again and again to Mumsnet, where I read about IVF until I’m terrified.
There was film I loved as kid. It was called The Neverending Story, and there’s a bit where the hero comes to a valley, where all who have passed through have died. On the edge of the valley there lives an old man, wizened as old men in films are, who says he will teach the hero to be fearless. Only those who feel fear will die, says the old man, so the hero must learn. Bastian, however, walks away from him. He knows that looking too hard, that thinking too much, that trying with every fiber of your being to not be frightened, isn’t how to do it. The only way to survive, to thrive, is to walk straight into the valley of doom and not look back. It’s a clunky metaphor, but it taught me something, at seven or however old I was, something about taking things at a run and a leap, rather than a wobble and a slow false start.
I feel I can learn something from him, from this, that when all my failures (the novel, a badly graded essay at school, a University professor suggesting I maybe shouldn’t study English Literature as I needed ‘protecting from a subject I didn’t understand) come back to me, then I just run through them, as Bastian runs past the skeletons of past aspiring heroes, past the grasping tree roots, along a precipice, without taking a moment to look over the edge, and go, ‘OH.’
I want to write my book about Uncertainty. I want to write about the uncertainty of being an autistic woman and how all my weirdnesses which I thought had disappeared, reemerged in lockdown. I want to write about my wonderful, dashing friend, who died when the days were at their longest. I want to to write about the pain and fear and desperation caused by infertility, the way you feel it in your breasts and womb and vagina, and how I know it hurts David too. I want to write about the terror of starting IVF as though writing about it will provide an amulet to protect us from the horror. I want to write about my crazy beautiful parents in France, and not knowing when I’ll see them again, but the words get stuck at my fingertips.
David says, ‘are you looking at IVF stuff again? Please can you stop?’
Only I’m not. I’m writing. Even though I’m writing about not writing, and that has to be something, doesn’t it? Maybe, the book will come if I stop being scared, and take it at a run and leap.