I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.
He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.
Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.
And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”
He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.
He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.
He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”
He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.
Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.
Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?
I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.
But sometimes the pressure does get to you. You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.
One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.
Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.
But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.
I was just so tired. So, so tired.
I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.
But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.
Recently, I’ve been asked by a few people what advice I would give someone who wants to be a writer. They assume because I have a blog and once, as a full-time journalist, I wrote for a living, that I ought to be able to tell others how to do it. It’s a fair assumption. But the truth is, I’m still and always learning!
Asking me how to write is like asking directions from a blind man with a guide dog; I don’t know how to tell you the way to get there. I just follow the dog.
That said, here are a few tricks the dog keeps trying to teach me.
First, write about what you know, the thing that’s right in front of you, the thing you’ve been given to write about, the thing you can’t seem to get off your mind. Read a lot and, in particular, read everything you can find by the writers you like best; if you like them, it’s probably because their voice speaks to the voice in you. Develop that voice. It’s yours.
Write like yourself, the way you talk. Read what you’ve written out loud. If it doesn’t sound like you, rewrite it until it does. Learn the rules of writing and stick to them a long time before you dare start messing around.
Write between the lines; say more with less. And be prepared to suffer, not because writing invites heartache, but because it always insists on examining it. Never pretend to be what you aren’t, or to know what you don’t know. That applies more to life than to writing, really, but the two are not so different. And as for inspiration, I don’t need it to write. I just need a deadline. It’s the surest cure I’ve ever found for writer’s block.
If you want to write, if you feel called to do so, you should. And you will. Maybe you won’t earn a living at it. Few writers ever do.
But you can write cards to encourage the downhearted; and notes of condolences to comfort those who suffer loss; and crisp, compelling business letters that clearly explain why the item you received was not the item you ordered, and what exactly you will do if you are not reimbursed. You can write job applications and memos to colleagues and letters to the editor, or to your MP, or to God, to shed light and right wrongs and make the world a better place, or at least, to get stuff off your chest.
You can write for posterity the stories your grandparents told you, stories that will be lost if you don’t write them before you die.
You can write love letters to your children or to anyone, really, to say all the things that you could never say with your mouth.
You can even write in a diary or journal, if you are so inclined (and a lot more disciplined than I am) to get to know yourself better.
That, of course, is the real reason we read and write — to know and to be known. It has been that way a very long time and I expect it always will. It works like this:
You take thoughts and feelings from your mind and your heart, and occasionally from your soul, and you fashion them into words.
That is called language.
You put the words on paper, or perhaps on a computer screen, using lines and circles, marks and symbols, until you trust them to carry your meaning.
That is called writing.
Then someone — who perhaps has never seen your face or heard your voice — sees your lines and circles and symbols and marks, and recognises them as words.
That is called reading.
Sometimes, unpredictably, the words hold the power to recreate the writer’s thoughts and feelings in the mind and the heart and even in the soul of the reader.
That is called communication.
Some do it for love. Some do it for money. And some of us, if we are lucky, get to do it for both.
And that’s where I will stop for now. The dog has gone to sleep.