It was supposed to happen like this. I was thirty-three, still sexy (I thought) and the grey hair colonialists had not yet ventured inland. There was no need for henna control. I was a mum and I was writing, enjoying the feel of my words on the page, thinking they tasted fresh, not perhaps as fresh the writers I admired most, but somehow comfortably crunchy. I thought I was okay with being the lemon puff to Zadie Smith’s tarte au citron. I planned to write (thought-provoking) stories, that would organically stretch into a novel, which would be poignant and well received. At the time this did not strike me as grandiose. I knew I was occasionally depressed but never (in my opinion) delusional. I would have described myself a realist. I exercised restraint in matters of ambition. Maybe I wouldn’t make Oprah’s book club but one day I thought it reasonable to assume that someone would come across me on a library shelf (ebooks had yet to be invented) and decide to take me home. If it worked out well, they’d read to the end and email me to say something nice and encouraging, possibly ask for more. If it worked out really well, I might get paid.
Ten years have passed. I’m greyer, saggier, a little less sexy perhaps. I see grandiosity where I didn’t it before. It was always there I think, though disguised as expectation. An expectation that the words would line up more easily and be better dressed. An expectation that they would visit more frequently and enjoy the bright lights of public exposure. In reality they were agoraphobic and struggled to make it out of the front door. I began to doubt that they would succeed in reaching the end of the street, much less the library. What to do with words that won’t leave the house? Pamper them with TV and crosswords. Cram them in a diary. Make shopping lists. After all, what’s wrong with being a bit shy? I agreed with them that the world was a dangerous place where people would look aghast and point fingers, at their shabbiness, at the holes in their shoes, at their tired clichés and surplus adjectives. The solution? Stay home and avoid embarrassment.
A yawning gap stretched itself between what was good enough and what was possible, between the words I could be proud of and the ones I could actually produce. A gap wide enough for a writer to commit suicide before she’s born. A writer’s gap in which the only question is choice.
Choice. Is it time to put the pen (or keyboard or notebook) away and admit defeat (I can’t be a writer because what I write isn’t good enough)? Or is it time to write what isn’t good enough and be unapologetically inadequate? Should I wait for the words to grow up and old so that when I’m senile or dead my children can read what’s left of them through layers of dust and wonder why? Or should I pick them up by their quivering spines, wish them luck and send them out to play? What will I do, watching the playground as the words of my heart run the gauntlet of kicks, taunts and bullies? Say, ‘at least you’re being read?’
I send them, weeping, through the front door, fighting the urge to claw them back, wipe their faces over again, retie their shoelaces in perfect loops. I want them to look their best and I want the best for them. Nothing less than the world conquering best. And just in case that’s not how it goes, I tuck a benediction in their empty pockets; May you see the sun, find a friend, get invited at least once to spend the night.