9. Writing and wrist scars
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
I am a writer. I am a writer. I am a writer.
In his book of tips on how to become a writer in the twenty-first century, Jeff Goins advocates writing ‘I am a writer’ three times on a sheet of paper at the start of each day/writing session, as a starting point and a means of convincing yourself you are one. In a weird, subliminal way, it kind of works. He acknowledges that of course this is not enough, and that above all one must roll their sleeves up and get the work done. This complements one of my favourite quotes on writing, Hemingway’s famous line, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ While ‘typewriter’ could nowadays be replaced by ‘notebook’, ‘laptop’, or ‘cloud storage system on any internet-enabled device’, the comment remains fundamental. Combine the observations of these two people and you get three things I believe are essential to writing: honesty, hard work, and convincing yourself it’s worth it. All three are necessary. But while the first two can be trained with practice and discipline, I struggle with the last one. Recently I received a rejection for my novel from a competition which I was really holding out for a shortlisting or more in (not the novel I have an extract from on my website). I shouldn’t have done that; I shouldn’t have built up any expectation. But I was in the library every day for weeks working on that individual submission and fine-tuning the synopsis. I really thought I had a shot. Something all books on writing or becoming a writer inform the reader (i.e. inform the aspiring writer) is that they’ll have to become resilient to rejection. On paper it’s something you can brace yourself for. In reality it gets painful. It really makes you doubt your credentials. And I want to revisit that Hemingway quote for what I’ll talk about next, without pun intended for obvious reasons, because I want to talk about the scars on my wrists.
I really don’t want this to be a gloomy post. Not at all. Okay, maybe a little. Necessarily. But it’s good to get it out there, to get things off your chest. So really it’s a positive one, in a way. The world works in strange ways, such as how proximity sometimes blocks honesty. I feel most comfortable writing about this for people back home from a hotel more than 5,000 miles away. Maybe it’s the secluded part of the rainforest in which I sit on this balcony, surrounded by people whose English is sparse. I feel a level of solitude required to be frank. And I should say from the off that I feel much better in myself. There is no need to worry or send me links to relevant helplines or anything like that. Though I fully appreciate any such thought. I feel good now. Pinkie promise.
There are a number of reasons for doing what I did. Writing rejection played its part. While I’m determined to get my novel out there, I’m fully aware that with each month and year it goes unpublished the material becomes a fraction less relevant. And I’ve put years into it. Having three short stories accepted for publication this year is way more than I could have hoped for, but the novel remains my ultimate goal. Related to this, I am now the age at which F. Scott Fitzgerald published a little book called The Great Gatsby nearly 100 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not delusional; I know I’m no writing prodigy like he was, but he could have been courteous and waited until he was forty so I wouldn’t feel the pressure of ageing – something which, no lie, I’ve constantly been struggling to come to terms with for the last decade (check out quarter-life crisis on Wikipedia). Ageing and mortality bother me like the mosquito in my room last night, which hummed towards my ear when the lights were off but as soon as I flicked on the switch to swat it, it seemed to disappear and leave me alone. (Except in this case I eventually did manage to locate the mozzie and kill it, by which token, from the analogy, I am now immortal.) Another type of rejection – that of paid employment – didn’t help matters. Wanting to remain in Cornwall to continue surfing and eating premier pasties, I applied for over thirty jobs in the area. I heard back from under ten and got an interview for just one, which I didn’t get. I was left pretty miffed and, honestly, feeling less like a human capable of functioning in the modern world. I’d spent hours on each application, and these were not jobs I was not qualified for. I’m not saying I expected it to be easy, but with a combined honours first in Maths and English I was expecting a little more. While I loved my time at university, I have one or two things to say about the British educational system. Maybe I’ll save that for another post. Or maybe I’ll refrain altogether and stop being so fucking preachy.
All of the above details added fuel, but the fire was built on two things: alcohol and loneliness. Here I want to separate two concepts. Right now I’m experiencing solitude. Away from people, by choice, I’m enjoying time to myself in which to write and take care of myself. Or, more accurately, dent my savings to have the lovely staff here take care of me. I see loneliness very differently. A certain emptiness accompanies it. Eating breakfast by myself this morning in the dining area – with a waiter who had to be on duty trying his best not to stare at each mouthful and convey his urge for me to hurry up – I felt somewhere between the two. But I managed to smile to myself at the situation. I think the fact of choosing solitude, while loneliness kind of chooses you, is important. Because the thing with loneliness is it can impact you even when you’re far from alone. We can all feel alone in certain ways, even if outwardly we’re surrounded by people. All of the factors I’ve mentioned – as well being in a long-distance relationship, somewhat smudged by my own irrational fear of commitment, with someone I care ever-so deeply for – added to my feeling of lonesomeness. And so, a couple of times after nights out toward the end of last year, drunk and heading to bed by myself, I decided to make the emotional pain physical by running a knife blade repeatedly over each wrist. I was searching for some kind of solace. And you know, the strangest thing is, I temporarily found it. I am in no way proud of what I did. Nobody should do this. Nobody should feel they need to and it’s alarming just how common self-harm is. But just for a day or two I had these cuts to take care of and, after the effects of alcohol wore off, I went out and bought products that I applied, in secret, three times per day to try to reduce future scarring. I wore long-sleeved tops for months and told nobody until I came home for Christmas.
But it’s been long enough now for me to think some of the scars will be permanent. It’s one of the reasons for me writing this. Anyone can talk to me about any of this anytime (… ironically, except now, because it’s 149p/minute for me to receive calls in Sri Lanka). If you’re feeling like doing the same, I urge you to talk first. Or write. I didn’t intend to do lasting damage, nor take this act to its fullest extent. Having good friends around me, who I knew I could talk to if I managed to draw up the courage, helped prevent this. But it’s still incredibly difficult to voice something so personal and with something of a history of taboo. Now more than ever, particularly with the proliferation of young people being affected (www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/worrying-rise-reports-self-harm-among-teenage-girls-uk/), it’s important to converse about this kind of stuff.
To other things. A book which seems to be on the shelves of every book swap at every hostel at the moment is Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I’ve ended up reading the first chapter about six times during my perusals of said shelves. From the bits I’ve read it seems like a self-improvement text which subverts normal self-help books by describing how to care less and therefore worry less. This in no way justifies what I did last night here at the hotel, but, well, fuck it. After a chicken fillet in mushroom sauce with veg chopped into intriguing shapes like Bart Simpson’s spiky hair, which tasted absolutely out of this world, I was talking with the member of staff I think must be kind of assigned to me (is that a thing? I don’t know these hotel niches), I asked about walking in the area and he thought I said smoking. He asked whether I wanted a cigarette. I said no. Then I changed my mind. I’d just had one of the best meals of my life at a relative steal of a price (about £3), and in a slightly strange circumstance: like this morning at breakfast, I was the only person to eat at the big rooftop dining area under a network of hanging lights. I took the cig back to my room along with the rest of my beer and sat on my balcony with the tankard in one hand and smoke in the other, with my feet on the table, and listened to Royal Blood on my earphones with the rainforest canopy silhouetted in front of me and an open starry sky above. The closest I’ll ever be to a rock star … but the joke’s on me for smoking as a non-smoker: one of the highlights of Kandy was getting my laundry done after wearing the same boxers too many times and having salty armpits for days; now some of my fresh clothes smell of musty smoke already. Karma, I guess. I am in Sri Lanka after all. Regardless, when my guy, Yasith, came to my room to square up the bill for the day, I tipped him heavily.
The aim for the rest of my stay here at Hotel Lagone is there is no aim. This was intended as a kind of rest stop and writing retreat, but I find, intentionally, that if I don’t treat it as the latter my writing is better because I then come to it naturally and of my own will and enjoyment. You may disagree. Feel free to say if so. I headed out this afternoon caked in SPF 50+ for another wee walk, and spotted lots of sunbirds. They’re pretty common around here but I never tire of seeing those little hummingbird-like things bobbing around the tops of palm trees. I tried to snap a good photo through my binoculars but the stray dogs which approached each time I stopped and got my phone out put me off. And besides, those little birds are too fond of movement and full of energy, like the kids down below in the pool now I’m back; splashing and shouting and making human towers until they collapse and everyone disappears for a moment in a wave of chlorine water only to resurface with big smiles and, somehow, no major injuries. Turns out I’m here during a Sri Lankan wedding ceremony so there are people everywhere and I’m literally the only Westerner staying here. The walls have been shaking all day from a thudding speaker setup in the ornate reception hall decorated in reds and golds. I could barely hear Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as I watched Lost in Translation, a movie I love and which is oddly appropriate in a place where I’m asked the same three questions by each person I bump into on the street: “What is your name?”, “How are you?”, and “Where going?”. And like Johansson in that film, I’m still not really sure of an answer to the last. But right now I’m trying, and succeeding, in having a good time along the way.