What am I doing?Posted: September 25, 2011
What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.
Vikram Seth, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet
We all create a narrative to explain our lives and I suppose this is my attempt to counter the nocturnal panic that grips me whenever I think about what I’m achieving, and what more I could be doing with my time.
I was 23, living in Paris and Langorne Slim’s lyrics called out to me across the half empty venue of the Elysee Montmartre (or was it the Divan du Monde?). Later, the words would continue to haunt me as I listened to them again and again, developing them into a mantra. I met Slim that night – Shaun is his real name – he was a super nice, humble guy. As I got more and more into his music I found a lot in his lyrics to relate to but that one line in “I ain’t proud” changed my life. At the time it was ok because I still had a year to rectify the situation but then here I am three years later still burdened by the dreaded feeling that I’ve got to pick up the pace.
For a long time I didn’t feel like that. I just assumed that I would achieve my goals because that’s what I wanted and I had always had what I wanted. I wasn’t even sure what my goals were because I never really needed to give much thought to them.
In my first year of university I started realising there were different kinds of goals in life, different paths I could go down that would never meet up again. I had an inspiring lecturer – Jim Flynn – who argued that our goals as humans went beyond seeking mere happiness. He described the craft of human politics as juggling six different ‘balls’ or core values, that were intrinsically valuable in their own right, not just in their capacity to contribute to our happiness. From memory these values included truth, beauty, diversity, perfectibility, utilitarianism, and justice. I started to think about which values were important to me.
What I hadn’t really realised by that point was that Life Won’t Wait; if I didn’t start making moves myself, life would to pass me by. I started thinking more about the paths that the people I knew were taking in life. Some were like me, passive, taking the path of least resistance. That was ok. You got a career, earned money, bought things that made you happy. Other people I knew though were different; were forging their own paths. I thought about what set them apart. They were still social, intelligent and motivated but they had something else. They thought for themselves and they were creative. I had never been creative but gradually, as I began to think for myself for the first time (mostly about my own mortality, and mostly in the dead of night), I decided I wanted to be creative. By this stage the creative people I knew had already made this choice, probably subconsciously, years before. They were musicians, singers, artists, actors. I was studying law and couldn’t do any of those things. It felt like with life ticking by so fast, I didn’t have time to go back and learn now. I had to do something I already knew. I’d been told that I could write okay and so I decided to work at that. I’d tap away at my keyboard with great enthusiasm, only to come back later to find sentimental prose, incoherent ramblings and occasionally a glimmer of something interesting. I’d think of the authors I admired: Fitzgerald; Hemingway; Orwell, and the ages at which they were first published. I despaired. I didn’t really think about the focus and effort they had expended to get to where they were; that maybe they had been fortunate enough to realise what they wanted in life earlier than I had.
The longer I thought about it though, the more I decided I wanted to be a writer, a journalist first, writing features for big magazines and later writing non-fiction books like the other authors I admired: Jon Krakauer; Eric Newby; Peter Hopkirk; or Chris Kremmer. But I couldn’t tell anyone. Instead I found myself working in a corporate law firm. This definitely wasn’t part of the plan. I panicked and, unsure what to do, went overseas “to find myself” in the words of my girlfriend at the time. That was how I ended up in Paris.
I thought I would be creative there – after all this was where Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Orwell all wrote – but I wasn’t. I hung out in bars and the closest I got to writing was the postcards home I sent and the desultory diary I kept – a pretentious moleskine I bought because they were the kind that Bruce Chatwin had written in.
Now here I am, three years later. Trying for real this time. I’ve finally admitted my dream to others in the hope of being motivated by my debilitating fear of failure. I’ve never felt so scared in my life. I recently read a reassuring anecdote though in which Reynolds Price said that writers are social misfits and compulsive masturbators. I think I might have what it takes.